Monthly Archives: January 2016

JEEPERS CREEPERS Leicester Square, Lounge WC2

MARTY FELDMAN:  A GREAT COMIC’S ENDGAME
Next week at the Jermyn there opens a play which is a memorial to a late-life friendship with Lucille Ball; already on the far side of the Charing Cross Road we have this; Robert Ross’ 90-minute imagining of the last years of another even more troubled comic who struggled with success, its burden on a marriage, and a frivolous persona which tended to take over. Marty Feldman’s was a brilliant performer but also a key 1960’s comedy scriptwriter – for everyone from Archie Andrews the vent doll to Michael Bentine and the Bootsie and Snudge sitcom. He worked with, or knew everyone, in the last years of old-style Variety, even Max Miller; he drank with Dylan Thomas and compared “insanities” with Spike Milligan.

 
But then he was picked up to play Igor the hunchback in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, and there came a lethal few years attempting to scale the heights of Hollywood and become an auteur-director himself . It ended in alcoholism and a lonely death far from home. Ross makes much of that dangerous distance; the Marty he portrays is always tugged by “an umbilical cord to the European tradition of comedy”, as his career falters and dies in that sunny, hotly commercial, perilously irony-free world way out West.

 
It is an imagining by Ross, though based on the researches in his biography; the first half consists of a late-night bedroom conversation with Marty’s wife Lauretta, and the second sees the relationship stressed, with him finally alone, drunk and depressed in New Mexico in 1982 during the filming of the excoriated film Yellowbeard he made with a few ex-Pythons (interestingly, it is a different ex-Python, Terry Jones, who directs Ross’ play.)

 
At first there is unease in watching this slow-motion crash: David Boyle plays Feldman, curly-haired and nimble, so well that you forget you are not looking at the pop-eyed reality, even when real Marty-jokes about his appearance crop up: like his claim that the studio insured him against falling over and getting “figured” rather than disfigured. Lauretta, supporter and patiently exasperated wife, is Rebecca Vaughan; she actually emerges faster than Boyle’s Marty does as a rounded and credible personality.

 

In fact Lauretta is in some ways the more interesting to watch: in the first half the rather pushy, determined backer who enjoys Beverly Hills and is keen to keep her wayward man’s erratic prattle from torpedoing his career on American talk shows, and therefore their new life. In this section there is a bit too much of his gagging and posing (indeed the play does not need its interval, and would tighten up beautifully at about 70 minutes).

 

Later, though, Vaughan shines as the wife’s brittle confidence dissolves into pain at his adulteries (“success went to my crotch” says Marty breezily, adding “…they all remind me of you, anyway” . We see a genuinely touching love and comradeship under strain. As he returns from another girlfriend with a gag, she grits “Not everything is a joke, Marty!’ to which, tellingly, he can only reply “It really is..”.

 

The endgame in a New Mexico hotel room is, of course, grim: but then, it was. We have been watching, in this close-up studio below Leicester Square, 100 minutes of comic, alcoholic self-destruction and ultimately self-pity, and that is wrenchingly sad. But Marty deserves remembering. The pity is that it is only his decline that makes drama.

box office 020 7734 2222 to 20 Feb
rating three

3 Meece Rating

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THE MOTHER Tricycle, NW6

THE EMPTY NEST, THE TROUBLED MIND

 

Hold tight. It’s the French genius litterateur Florian Zeller messing with our heads again. We are confused, wary, deceived and unsettled by the tricks of emotional distress and delusion, imaginary conversations which might be real, and real ones reimagined, all in a bleak white space. Gina McKee is a mother in her forties: sulky and resentful, desolate and impossible, demanding and lost and provocative and depressed and increasingly crazy. We first meet her when her husband – Richard Clothier, businesslike and weary, comes home talking about a seminar in Leicester he is to lead at the weekend. We learn that she is depressed, obsessively missing her adult son Nicholas and resenting his girlfriend; that life seems to her to cheat women, as now the children are grown she is lonely and unoccupied, pitying herself because “you all leave, after using me up”.

 

So far, so familiar. We have all heard the plaints of unimaginative mothers about the empty nest which they somehow never foresaw. But this one is shot through with flickers of oddity: vicious asides, startling admissions that she never liked her daughter, only the son, and thinks her husband is having affairs. The same scene recurs, only with differences; suddenly we are unsure how much of it is real, how much in her head.

 

The son returns – William Postlethwaite, lanky and sullen and oppressed, and she is sometimes cooingly maternal, sometimes unnervingly flirtatious, sometimes worryingly dotty. The husband’s departure for his seminar recurs, sometimes fulfilling her suspicions, sometimes not. The absent girlfriend appears. But she is also the father’s secretary, the absent daughter, a nurse: all young and therefore threatening. There is a red dress which two characters wear at once. Time sllps and slithers. Sometimes characters say things – or seem to – with startling violence. The suggestion hovers (possibly just in her mind, but who knows?) that the best gift a young man can give his lover is matricide: putting an end to the incubus who bore him.

 

McKee, ever more lost, seems to hear a mocking young female voice: “You will grow old on your own, unhappy and alone”. But what with the blackouts and the jangling noises of memory, children’s voices, a school bell, discordant piano (Jon Nicholls’ sound design), we are not sure we anyone, other than her own brain, says it.
It was the gallant little Tricycle which brought in – from the Bath Ustinov – Florian Zeller’s The Father: a devastating, wilfully confusing portrayal (one could almost say, a shared experience) of dementia: a pure stark use of theatre demonstrating how it might be to live from minute to minute unsure of who is who and how much of it all is inside your head. Since then, Kenneth Cranham’s unforgettable performance has moved into the West End and gathered more five-star excitement: now the Trike brings us this, which Zeller wrote two years earlier. Again Christopher Hampton translates, and we can observe in another 90-minute tour de force how the playwright’s technique of alienation was being refined. So Zeller-minded has London theatre become that his latest is due to premiere soon in the Menier. His talent is a more than welcome revelation.

 

box office 020 7328 1000 to 5 March

rating Four   4 Meece Rating

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THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE St James Theatre, SW1

A MEMORIAL IN MUSIC

 

This is a solo show, a memorial to a mother and to a generation. It is performed not by an actor but by the American concert pianist, Mona Golabek.  Yet as a piece of theatre – 90 minutes long – its simplicity and immensity create one of the greatest impacts of the year so far.. If you don’t shed, or at least suppress, one or two tears I may have to disown you.

 

It is done with gentle simplicity:  great gilt frames, a grand piano and the narrator. But there is Grieg and Chopin and Beethoven, snatches of Scriabin and Debussy , thundering Rachmaninoff and gentle Bach: all woven seamlessly into the stark, terrible, courageous, touching tale of one girl’s journey through the 20th century’s greatest ordeal.

 

Golabek introduces herself, and thereafter speaks as her mother, Lisa Jura. The frames become portraits or scraps of monochrome newsreel as we are taken into the world of a little Viennese girl in the ‘30s, who always dressed up smart to skip down the road for her beloved piano lessons.  Until one day her Herr Professor tells her, looking at the floor, that the new law says he cannot teach a Jewish child.
Her father , a successful tailor, loses business and goes out gambling in desperation. On Kristallnacht, stripped and spat on , he manages to keep hold of a scrap of paper. A single ticket for the Kindertransport.  And Lisa is chosen, her mother adjuring her to go to England, find a professor, and “always hold on to the music”. She is fourteen years old when she takes that train to Liverpool Street. Through her next six years, and through the story as told on stage by her daughter Golabek, it is the music which sustains both her and us.
It is easy to forget, in pride at the Kindertransport rescue and the selfless heroism of parents who sent their children away, that mere safety is not all a child needs. Lisa, holding in her head forever a memory of the lost home and the lost lessons, was sent as a skivvy to a grand manor where she crept downstairs by night and pretended, hands hovering over the keys, to play the grand piano. When the silence was too much to bear and she played, the servants gathered marvelling but the head housemaid reproved her: going alone to London to protest, she found a berth in a crowded hostel – 17 girls and 14 boys, in Willesden lane. It happened to have a piano, so she stayed.
It is told often with great humour, Golabek’s voice and narrative gradually becoming more mature (the adaptation by Hershey Felder is skilful, economical and understated, wisely leaving the huge emotions to the music).   The child plays alone in the basement in the Blitz, trying to drown the bombs with Grieg.  War news on the radio and readings from other children’s letters mark the anxious days, but they are all sent to work, she sewing uniforms in a factory.  The hostel is destroyed, the young refugees scattered, adjured by Mrs Cohen always to “Show the British people your utmost respect and gratitude”.  She rebuilds, brings them back together, urges Lisa to a scholarship at the RA.  Lisa sees Dame Myra Hess at the stripped National Gallery , playing Bach so that, as the great pianist says, “through all the dark times we never forget our humanity”.
And all through it Golabek keeps returning to the piano, sometimes not for five minutes or more when Lisa is exiled from it, but always returning triumphant, to send out waves of faith and defiance and longing, the spirit of lost Vienna.   A technical note: Golabek is sometimes narrating, even as she plays, and the sound balance is, mysteriously, perfect.

She plays her Wigmore Hall debut at last, and the VE bells ring; but Auschwitz is uncovered , and more news must be borne. Yet still there is humour and hope, for the young must look forward. She  fancies a boy in the hostel, Aaron who joins the RAF; she meets her future husband ,a Free French officer, when she plays hotel piano to soldiers before D-Day.  In this bygone teenager’s story, and the music which pervades it, the veil of time rolls back.
box office 0844 264 2140 to 27 February.
Rating Five.   5 Meece Rating

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GUYS AND DOLLS Savoy Theatre, SW1

ANOTHER CHICHESTER SMASH COMES WEST
This is a revisit, to a partly recast Chichester show: and I must admit I had qualms about losing that generosity, that overflowing vigour you get with the classic musicals on the Festival Theatres’ great three-sided arena. Back in the retro, ornate proscenium world of the Savoy I feared it would be somehow constrained by the square magnificence. And, not least, whether the amazing 3D choreography by Andrew Wright and Carlos Acosta would feel cramped.
But the magic is still there: how could it not be, in Frank Loesser’s exuberant 1950 fairytale of gamblers, showgirls and tambourine-banging missionaries out to convert them. The book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, drew on Damon Runyon’s world: a sunny, larky, airbrushed almost Wodehousian interpretation of New York lowlife. Even Big Jule (Nic Greenshields) is lovable in his gun-toting menace. And Peter McKintosh’s great illuminated arc of nostalgic advertising posters – pure Disney, in a good way – works remarkably well, especially in the clever use of deep darkness upstage, a chiaroscuro effect which makes the stage look bigger than it is. So Gordon Greenberg’s production sings and soars pretty well unfettered. And the choreography – especially the Cuba scene and the leapfrogging, hurtling, somersaulting gamblers in suits and ties – is positively Acostacrobatic, spectacular. “Siddown you’re rocking the boat” is a bit less overwhelming than at Chichester, but still one of the top sights of the London spring. Selina Hamilton is London’s Havana diva, and brawls a treat with the missionary – Siubhan Harrison magnificently taking over as Sgt Sarah with fearless drunken hurtling. And Sophie Thompson’s Miss Adelaide is back, as at Chichester : adorably crazy, whether amid her Hot Box hoofers in gingham corsetry or bewailing her reluctant fiancé. Irresistible is her high Bronx twang swoops gloriously down to a dismayed baritone, her stooping S-shaped anxiety the flip side of her bravura career.

 

In this London production her paramour is David Haig: back in his trademark moustache (we sort of missed it in his magnificent performance in the Madness of George III a couple of years back). He is a lovely Nathan Detroit: a middle-manager of the underworld, one minute assured in his crap-game management, the next cringing at Big Jule, but intensely likeable (and an unsuspectedly fine singer). And Jamie Parker reprises Sky Masterson – chiselled and cool, letting the the character breathe, hesitate, and genuinely change as he falls in love. the laughing cheer when he reappears with his Mission uniform had a real audience warmth to it. And Greenberg’s detailed, loving production keeps its fine passing jokes: my favourite being the moment when he makes momentarily solid the women’s dreams of a ruralized Nathan and domesticated Sky. It takes only seconds, that, but adds to the sum of happiness; so does the real steam from the New York pavement gratings and the momentary appearance (twice) of a wobbly nun on a bicycle with a collecting-bucket.
So yes, the Chichester magic is still there. It can keep its full tally of happy, hoofing, dancing mice. It’s romping on into March, and a fine night out.

box office cft.org.uk 01243 781312 to 12 March
Rating: five   5 Meece Rating

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THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY Trafalgar 2, SW1

MORE POIGNANT THAN POISONOUS: A 125TH ANNIVERSARY MARKED

 

One wit called it ‘the first French novel in English’, with its seductive evocation of exotic decadence and corrupting wickedness. Critics in the 1890’s sputtered “poisonous…heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction” and fit only for “outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys”. In other words, homosexual. But it has outlived them, this Oscar Wilde fable of the beautiful boy Dorian who keeps his fresh appearance while in the attic his portrait snarls, sneers and withers to monstrosity. It has a power beyond its snappy epigrammatism and slightly embarrassing passages of late-Victorian opium-dream exoticism. It deserves respect in the revisiting, not least as a cry of pain from the age of homosexual persecution.
In this version it gets that respect, because Wilde’s only grandson, Merlin Holland, with John O’Connor, has adapted and dramatized it, consulting unseen manuscripts and crucially reintroducing the more explicit homoeroticism which Wilde and his editors prudently removed. Basil Hallward, the decent, vulnerable artist who paints the portrait, now declares himself openly to the scornful Dorian, and does it at the moment when he is pleading with him to give up his decadent criminality. It’s about love: and Basil – not the witty corrupting Lord Henry Wotton or even Dorian himself – is the heart of it. Wilde , who of course was married with children he loved, and not yet exposed as gay, himself admitted that Basil was himself, though Wotton was “what the world thinks me”. There’s a melancholy in that.

 

 

So one approaches the show itself with respect, though it is a mere studio-scale four-hander and – despite some nimble direction by Peter Craze – not as lavish as other attempts have been. Holland and O’Connor’s shaping is effective, and the fragments of additional dialogue are sharp; there’s a lovely moment, not in the book, when the tradesman who carries the picture upstairs is told he can’t look at it, so assumes pornography and hopefully offers Dorian some “French” pictures he has out the back. Wilde’s endless contrarian epigrams in the mouth of Lord Henry (John Gorick slick-haired and bowtied, an overripe Oscar) can become  bit tiresome when one knows them too well. But not everyone does, so that is fine.

 

 

Fine in a more positive sense is the characterisation, notably by Rupert Mason superb as Basil Hallward. He gives restrained painful reality to the painter’s fear of his own helpless worship, mingled with real unease at Wotton’s influence on the boy’s innocence.   Guy Warren-Thomas as Dorian is blond and chiselled enough to make worship credible; though not the conventionally prettiest of youths he has a striking memorable oddity about him, and a slightly wooden stillness and soft romanticism in the first half which works. At least, if you accept that Dorian is “plastic”, corruptible by Wotton’s yellow-book witticisms.  Helen Keeley’s Sibyl Vane is breathily sweet, with a nice humour, and genuinely poignant in her moment of fatally renouncing stage pretence for love.

 

 

All good. A problem though in this four-hander (which might profitably have been framed in artful meta-theatre style to defuse the awkwardness ) is that the doubling and tripling of casting forces three principals to diverge repeatedly from their fully felt main performances and dip hastily jnto caricature acting –   Gorick has to be Sibyl’s Mum, a butler, a blackmailed medic, and an opium-crazed victim of Dorian’s decline; Mason must abandon his troubling, profound Hallward to be a Duchess, a dodgy theatre-manager, Sibyl’s vengeful sailor brother and the framer. As for Helen Keeley, she flowers into seven other characters of diverse ages, all with the same elaborate hairdo as Sibyl, and yes, that is a problem.

 
But it’s only a problem because, below the ripping-yarn quality there is a seriousness in the tale which Holland honours. It’s not just a horror-story – though the smoke, green light, opium pipes and a pleasing creepiness in the second half tend that way.  Dorian’s hedonism is a tragedy, and Wilde knew it. Wotton’s epigrams and praise of fleeting pleasures are just fragile armour against the disappointments of life in the emotional shallows: Wilde knew that too. For where can you live but in the sparkling shallows, when society would damn and imprison you for expressing your deeper self?

 

BOX OFFICE 0844 871 7632 TO 13 Feb

rating three  3 Meece Rating

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4000 DAYS Park Theatre, N4

AMNESIA AS A NEW START?

 
In a hospital bed lies Michael: Alistair McGowan, motionless in a coma, we learn, for three weeks. His mother Carol (Maggie Ollerenshaw) holds his hand, has been sleeping in a chair and tending the flowers on his nightstand. Enter – with competing flowers – the third player Paul (Daniel Weyman).

 
Younger, in his lunch-hour from a banal job, Paul is awkward in the frozen presence of the mother, appalled that she is lighting a fag. “Oh” she says airily “He’s been breathing in my cigarettes since he was a baby, he needs familiar things”. Hers is the first shot in an ongoing battle for possession of Michael. For Paul has been, we gradually learn, living as Michael’s partner for ten years. Carol demurs at his offer to take the night watch with a pious “He’ll want to see his mother’s face first” , and the young man’s bald “Why?” gets a good laugh. He observes that actually, Michael only went to see her every three months. Carol ripostes that this is because Paul alienated him and (we shall learn) stopped him from painting in favour of paid work. Although she loves her son , “We mothers do reserve the right to be VERY disappointed”. She refuses to give up the chair. Paul clambers defiantly on the bed to embrace his lover.

 

 

Peter Quilter (who wrote the marvellous “End of the Rainbow”) has placed this timeless mother-in-law conflict in a piquant situation, because when Michael wakes all three are disconcerted to find that he has lost nearly eleven years of memory. He thinks it’s 2005, that his mother has inexplicably got wrinkly, that he is still a painter, and most unnerving of all, he doesn’t know who Paul is. McGowan, so recently a stellar Jimmy Savile in this theatre, evokes the puzzlement and repressed fear of the situation brilliantly; not least because he has, from the first moments of consciousness, revealed Michael as a brittle, sarcastic, amusing and defensive personality (very much his mother’s son, actually, which is satisfying).

 

And so the battle goes on: Carol keen that this should be a fresh start for him, because she reckons Paul made her bright son beige and boring. Paul tries to get his baffled former inamorato up to date with the alarming measure of trolleying in ten years’ worth of copies of The Guardian. Between that and the blasts of ward-TV footage of disasters, bank crashes, Ebola, and Ruby Wax, the poor man has a task ahead of him.

 
Quilter raises  interesting philosophical and psychological questions: might it be good suddenly to believe oneself younger, still hopeful and vigorous before the attrition of maturity and compromise? And how real are any of our memories anyway, since we edit all the time? The dialogue slows a bit in handling this, but the solidity of the three characters and the finely balanced sarky charm of the invalid hold firm.

 
The second act sees a sub-Kandinsky mural being half-finished on the ward wall (actually, its debt to the master’s 1925 Yellow Red Blue is a little too close, given all the lines we’re hearing about the excitement of fresh creativity, but let that pass). It also brings an unexpected, emotionally heroic gesture by Paul. And with a series of memory flashes comes a resolution which I for one found genuinely moving. There is even compassion for Ollerenshaw’s enjoyably bitchy Carol, who betrays at the end the real bleakness of her need to control an adult son. Matt Aston directs, deftly (though a bit more trimming would help) and it’s good to see, once more, the brave upstart Park offering new work. Never dull.

 
box office 0207 870 6876 to 13 Feb
rating three   3 Meece Rating

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THIS WILL END BADLY Southwark Playhouse, SE1

BARE AND BLEAK:  A YOUNG MAN’S CRISIS 
The playtext of Rob Hayes’ monologue austerely insists that performance “should not exceed 60 minutes in duration”. This author doesn’t want it larded with significant pauses or dreamy mannerisms: and in honouring his intention, the remarkable Ben Whybrow (directed by Clive Judd) brings it in just under. No mean feat: for all its emotional intricacy and verbal subtleties, the play at that length requires rapid-fire delivery bordering, quite often, on gabble.

 

And that is its strength, and a reason why this 2015 applauded Edinburgh production richly deserves its trip south. It is both terrifying and intermittently funny, unnervingly perceptive about a particular young male crisis. It is deadly earnest in its determination to strip bare some, at least, of the reasons why at Anna Haigh Productions’ show the seats need to be strewn with pamphlets and cards from the  charity CALM: Campaign Against LIving Miserably, which offers peer support to men in crisis.
The protagonist, unnamed, is pacing like a nervy zoo animal, in a state of tense distress and on the edge of suicide. His girlfriend has left him; he is struggling – explicitly and with bleak effective laddish humour – with the physical symptom of an extreme eleven-day constipation. He has a job, which he is losing because he won’t go in, and dreams of writing jingles for advertisements because of their short but unforgettable perfection. He has tried Seroxat, but won’t go back to the GP because of an unreasonable, OCD dread of germs, which also makes him leave his shopping in bus shelters rather than carry bacteria home. He is sleepless, distressed, griping, sorrowful, desperate: suicidal, but uncertain of achieving even that.

 

 

The character grows round and likeable though. He is saddened by porn’s brutality, a “beautiful person providing this profane service for me”, and remembers the loving, decent relationship he has lost. But at extremes he veers off into violent fantasies of killing and predation, crying how little is left for men and their hard-wired need for ascendancy. “We’ve been fixed by society, neutered. By the markets, by diversity, by unwarranted shame, by these loosey-goosey ideas like equality which push exactly not just every single structure mankind has ever built, but also against human nature itself”. He cries “Shaming us won’t work, nothing will work…you’re only pushing us deeper underground, making our conviction all the more venomous. And we will win, we will do anything to win”.
If that, to a feminist reader, seems horrible I can say that it doesn’t actually feel that way on the stage. Because the young man is in front of us, suffering greatly, trapped between an old message telling him he is a lord of creation and a real world which informs him that he isn’t. He needs a father, an elder brother, a mentor, an adult woman who loves him and laughs with him about the cosmic joke of it all. Not every suicidal young male draws his pain from this precise source. But some do, and it was good to see so many young men – and girlfriends – in the audience.

 

box office 0207 407 0234 to 6 Feb
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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