Monthly Archives: February 2016



I loved this show at the Theatre Royal, Bath, and – especially given a couple of rather snotty lukewarm reviews – thought I should check it out on its transfer, which runs into the summer. And so it should. For me, it still works.
To recap briefly: it’s a newborn musical incarnation of the true story made famous in the film with Judi Dench: how a doughty widow bought the Windmill Theatre to put on “Revuedeville” , with the legendary Vivian Van Damme as her manager, and decided to improve its failing fortunes by persuading the showgirls to get naked. She used her formidable respectability to persuade the Lord Chamberlain that it was going to be art not stripping, because once naked the girls wouldn’t move, but represent classical paintings under filmy light (“subtle lighting and a conscientious hairdresser” on the pubes).

And so there is nudity, and very pretty too: I can’t stand alongside those who gloomily regard it as exploitative, not in a world where female nudity of a far more seedy, raunchy variety glimmers at us from every newsstand. The nudity of the Windmill was – and the show makes this beautifully clear – more about an age of comparative innocence, when that nakedness was a precious and sought-after rarity, a dream of love. Particularly for young men who would soon die in war – like the stagehand who falls for the tea-girl turned star, Emma Williams’ sweet Maureen.


I also appreciated once more the shape and craft of the show. Terry Johnson’s book (he also directs) gives us a first , longer and at first more frivolous, act, taking us from the mid-30s to the war years, but shades it into a startlingly dark interlude and song when Van Damm (Ian Bartholomew) the Dutch-Jewish impresario, reports the invasion of Holland; then in the Blitz the Windmill is hit, and in a particularly courageous and surprisingly moving moment Emma Williams breaks the no-moving rule – “I’m not standing still for this!” and steps forward starkers as the bombs fall to finish the defiant anti-Hitler number “He’s got another think coming” after the male singer falters.


The lyrics by Don Black are sharp, every song serving the story and pushing it forward; the music by George FEnton and Simon Chamberlain is sometimes the best sort of pastiche, sometimes original and moving. And Mrs Henderson herself is the unmatchable Tracie Bennett: lately a memorable Judy Garland but here deploying a sharp, acid wit, convincingly aged as a patron saint for all women determined to get a bit of fun out of their latter years . “I can be anything I want – except young”. That’s an song which could last. So is the memory of the old lady’s dryness, perfectly rendered by Bennett. Up on the roof, wearily firewatching in the Blitz, she is told “You’ll catch your death” she replies “Oh, I think Death’s busy enough elsewhere”.

Sweet and sour, nostalgic and sharp, with a kind of unapologetic showbiz honesty, here is another play celebrating the stage (alongside Red Velvet and Nell Gwynn, it’s a bit of an epidemic) . And it celebrates women, too, and defiant ageing. I still like it a lot.

box office 020 7400 1234 to 18 June
rating four

4 Meece Rating




Filed under Four Mice, Theatre

THE RINSE CYCLE Charing Cross Theatre, WC2



Some people get terribly, passionately serious about Wagner. This shouldn’t be a problem: truly great music of all kinds tends to attract obsessive adulation, especially whenever the artist is a controversial, genre-breaking genius (cf. the recent press reaction to the death of David Bowie). But the sad fact is that too often, this fervent Wagner-worship only alienates everyone else, who are bored, horrified, or even put off, by all that ferocious fandom. Lynn Binstock is on a mission to change this: and her Rinse Cycle brings Wagner’s Ring to us in a completely new way.

Like the Reduced Shakespeare Company, Unexpected Opera take on this mighty classic with a mixture of bravery, madness, and humour. The plot of the Ring itself, now set in a café-cum-laundrette, has been shrunk “in the wash” from sixteen hours to a trim two, shedding a few characters like errant socks, but keeping all Wagner’s essential points of reference and action intact. Nancy Surman’s setting, “Patisserie Valkyrie”, gives us three huge washing-machines (labelled BISH, BASH, BOSH), uses a steam-cleaner to evoke the terrible dragon form of Fafner, and lets Siegfried temper his magically reforged sword by ironing it. Meanwhile, Roger Mortimer’s script condenses the Ring with wonderful directness: the whole action of Siegfried (hero kills dragon, understands bird and sees through lies, kills evil dwarf, finds Brünnhilde and falls in love with her) zips along in minutes, not hours.

As a secondary storyline, we also have the story of the characters who are actually playing for us: a middle-aged couple whose marriage is on the rocks, a pretty mistress, and two young lovers. The players’ story acts as a crucial vehicle for clarifying plot points in the Ring: “You know in a sci-fi film when they always have some idiot on board who doesn’t understand how the rocket works, so they have to explain it to him? That’s where you come in,” they tell Tim (the token ‘daft tenor’, played with winning innocence by Edward Hughes). The Ring thus gets annotated as it progresses, with players helpfully breaking out of character to remind us who is who, or why someone is where. With two complete casts to choose from, each fields strong operatic talent on stage; for all, the periodic challenge of ‘straight’ acting is a stretch from their usual singing presences, but the cast gain in assurance all evening, inhabiting Binstock’s quirky and enthusiastic world with vigour.

Wagner’s music, delivered (in Andrew Porter’s excellent English translation) with profound sincerity, rather than the disarmingly cheesy one-liners and music-hall banter which marks the spoken exchanges, has been reduced even more than the plot, to crisp piano accompaniment. Though significantly cut, this ‘tasting menu’ gives a nice, brief sense of the myriad musical moods and textures of the Ring. Unexpected Opera’s approach is characteristically unstuffy, even casual: some critics have been sniffy about this, but they’ve missed the point of the project. The self-proclaimed exclusivity of Wagnerites does Wagner no favours. This fresh, funny and utterly original take on the Ring is a joyful celebration of Wagner’s great Gesamtkunstwerk: definitely worth a spin.


At the Charing Cross Theatre until 12 March 2016. Box office: 08444 930 650

Rating: Three 3 Meece Rating…but with an added musical mouseMusicals Mouse width fixed

Comments Off on THE RINSE CYCLE Charing Cross Theatre, WC2

Filed under Three Mice




This premiere for the Park is a cracker: a serious, grownup, constantly entertaining light on history with fine-drawn characters, and some acidly sharp philosophical resonances for today’s troubled Europe and our divided government. Jonathan Lynn wrote and directs: as co-author of the Yes Minister series and the recent (less impressive and even more cynical) stage play we know he has a sharp political eye. But this one is richer and more acutely perceptive than mere satire.
It deals with the relationship between Charles de Gaulle and his old friend and mentor Philippe Petain, Marechal of France, national hero, victor of Verdun in the first war but collaborator-Premier in the Vichy government during the second. When, of course, de Gaulle was the leader of the Free French resistance. The play is framed with Pétain, 89 years old, in a cell in 1945 awaiting trial for treason after the Liberation. It flashes back to the eve of World War 1 and the first meeting between the peppery, dry-witted senior officer and the gangling, awkwardly scholarly, intellectually arrogant and humourless cadet De Gaulle. It takes them in sparring friendship through that war’s attrition, the uneasy 1930’s, and Pétain’s rise to an aged and disastrous political career as head of the puppet government, signing at one point a death warrant on the Resistance leader who was once almost a son to him.
I can’t recommend it strongly enough to newer generations, not least in a time when questions of sovereignty, patriotic feeling and the very nature of nationhood underpin less bloody but equally emotional political divisions in our own land. Pétain, the pragmatist who reckons they could rub along with the Germans and save more deaths, at one point says impatiently that “For de Gaulle France is a dream. A romance. For me it is the land, the cheese, the people”. De Gaulle just says “I am France. If I want to know what France thinks, I ask myself”. And, austerely impatient of those slow to join the Resistance, “What can you expect from a nation which elevates food ,wine and fashion to national preoccupations?”. Nor is he impressed by the deals offered by “perfidious Albion” and its Churchill who is every bit as stubborn and arrogant as he is himself.


The key performances are superb – amid a versatile ensemble giving us soldiers, collaborators, Nazis and a nicely pompous Lord Halifax (very Yes Minister, that bit). But it hangs on the leads: Tom Conti, with a neat white moustache, is Pétain: instantly likeable, clubbable, dryly humorous, lecherous, stubbornly commonsense, amused by the earnest de Gaulle. Who is Laurence Fox, equally fabulous casting in the role, all Thucydides and poetry-books and arrogant social ineptitude and irritable strategic brilliance. They men are nicely defined by their broad leather military belts: Fox’s always straight as a die on his rigid up-and-down frame, Conti’s always at a bit of an angle, with comfortable bulges above and below.

Sometimes it is blisteringly funny: a scene on the eve of a WW1 battle has them growing drunk together, jerkily discussing the concept of the Nietzschean Superman until the older man grows bored and lurches off to the whore he’s ordered. Sometimes it lets us see the edges of horror, as the wily old pragmatist signs off the “repatriation of political dissidents” to Germany – meaning, Jews. Sometimes there is real pain in the mutual disillusion of the friends. Always it is intelligent, well-researched but imaginative about human struggles and choices. It’s sparely set, as between sandbagged wings a great map of France reminds us how fatally the Maginot Line stopped at the “friendly” Belgian border . But Andrea J Cox’s vivid soundscape gives us bombardments, bands, bugles, and a moment of the Horst-Wessellied. And so the two men circle one another, magnets both drawn and repelled, as France endures her darkest and proudest hours.


It’s terrific. Honour to the Park, but this deserves a rapid transfer. Hope so. A commercial theatre ecology – which after all sold Ben Brown’s “Three Days in May” in the big Trafalgar Studios to illustrate our own end of the 1940 dilemma – should welcome it in.

box office 020 870 6876 to 19 march

rating five    5 Meece Rating

Comments Off on THE PATRIOTIC TRAITOR Park Theatre,

Filed under Five Mice, Theatre

THE TEMPEST Wanamaker at Shakespeare’s Globe, SE1


For a departing artistic director, especially here, Shakespeare’s last plays are a natural choice: great poetic anthems of reconciliation and renunciation.  Hence this winter Cymbeline, Pericles, The Winter’s Tale and now the Tempest, with the poet’s strange final moment of burying the book, abjuring rough magic, abdicating.  Dominic Dromgoole, after eleven adventurous, globe-circling years here, is the first to stage a farewell in winter, in the little candlelit Wanamaker playhouse completed so beautifully on his watch.

So it’s an event, and bears all the marks of a classic Globeish night.  The storm sees staggering, shouting, Ariel on a swinging lantern overhead and particularly poignant added cries of “Farewell!” from every direction as men, we think, drown. Ashore, the two drunkard clowns play it for all it’s worth if not slightly more – Dominic Rowan a larky Trinculo baiting the pit, and Trevor Fox a preeningly posh Stefano: both are prone to chuck in lines about fish fingers, the Jubilee line, etc in order to serve the spirit rathe than the letter of Shakespeare. Some of  their physical gags with Caliban and the blanket are sublimely, daftly timeless, especially a moment when three of them appear to be playing Twister underneath it, random feet everywhere.


. The nobles – especially in their first politicking and dissenting scene after the shipwreck – are admirably vivid, especially the nastily camp Sebastian (Christopher Logan) playing against the flatfooted earnestness of Joseph Marcell’s Gonzalo and a quiet intense Alonso – Paul Rider – whose grief for a lost son quivers in the air around him.  But it must revolve round Prospero, and at first I had qualms about Tim McMullan’s orotundly preachy patriarch: this is not a Prospero whose pain you feel; more of a schoolmasterly figure. Easy to imagine that he formerly retreated to his library and fatally ignored his dukely responsibilities. His authority over Miranda borders on Barrett of Wimpole Street parenting. But it’s all in the text, and by the time the magician forces forgiveness on himself, it works. Phoebe Pryce’s Miranda, in good contrast, is a simple delight: marvelling, obedient but vigorous, curious as a child approaching her Ferdinand at first sight to touch his face uninhibitedly, only gradually falling into modest diffidence. She’s a treat.

Pippa Nixon’s Ariel – and again this slant is in the text – is unusual: not quite human but seeming sometimes to yearn towards that fullness. In early moments she is visibly, agonizedly traumatized by reminders of her old captivity under Sycorax. There is pain and tension under her submission, an odd envious curiosity in her gestures as she drifts among the humans as if she knew something was missing in her. It gives power to that odd “I would, were I human” near the end. In the harpy scene – flying overhead in 20ft ragged batwings – this pained Ariel delivers a sudden harsh rage. Again, I took to her after faint misgivings, and learned new things about the play.  Caliban’s colonial-victim indignations are, in contrast,familiarly human: Fisayo Akenade is a one-man tribe displaced, angry and abased, learning to curse and drink but stilled, movingly, by the “sounds and sweet airs”.


So, as it should be, it is a poem, a dream, a myth. Stephen Warbeck’s score and songs wind through with music soulful or raucous, sweet airs and drinking songs. The candles glimmer, ghostly masked figures creep, and even in the always unwieldy masque of Ceres you just about manage to stop worrying that the  bearded bloke flying down as Ceres in an exploding wheat hat will catch his nightie in the  candelabras.  Poetry, mystery, absurdity: its the full Globe-Dromgoole experience distilled and concentrated, lit with many flames.

box office 0207 401 9919 to 22 april
rating four   4 Meece Rating

Comments Off on THE TEMPEST Wanamaker at Shakespeare’s Globe, SE1

Filed under Four Mice, Theatre


Looking back at this play’s first outing – in the outdoor, summery, rackety pleasure that is Shakespeare’s Globe – I remember actually liking it far less than Jessica Swale’s last play there – the excellent BLUESTOCKINGS. Somehow I seem to have emerged in a mere three-mouse mood, despite all the fun, froth and bracing feminism of our heroine: low-born mistress of Charles II, orange seller, actress. Was even a touch dubious despite all the happy sentimental references to theatre itself, reborn and daring after the dreary Cromwell years (there’s always a cheer for the King’s “Playhouses are a valuable national asset! Down with austerity!”) . At the time though, I seem to have found its jokes a bit too knowingly Blackadderish, its bawdy too obvious.

Well, to hell with me. Now it’s come indoors, I must beg you to ignore all that and be assured that this is a Restoration riot to restore the spirits: a hoot, a perfect winter treat. It’s gorgeously set in courtly gold tassels, velvet and the tacky backstage paraphernalia of Mr Killigrew’s theatre where Nell becomes one of the first women onstage. The show is still larger than life, very Globeish, rumbustious, jokey and joyous with great running gags like the gloomy presence of a ginger-wigged Dryden forever trying to knock out a new play in the corner and coming up with unusable plots (one of which is Titanic).

But for some reason, Christopher Luscombe’s production works better here than at the Globe. Maybe because it feels more intimate than it did from high above, since we are all (albeit seated) groundlings able to enjoy the glances, grins, flounces and double-takes. The “Cheapside whore” harnesses her tough rude street wit to light up the stage, affronting the horrified Mr Kynaston who previously had the women’s parts to himself with his fake linen books , and charms the restless insecure King with her insistence on being a girlfriend – a defiant and mouthy one – rather than a courtier.

David Sturzaker reprises the role of Charles II, showing a nice edge of vulnerability amid his shrieking competitive entourage of one Portuguese Queen, one arrogant British mistress and one politically necessary French one. Swale makes it credible that his need to add Nell to his life was a hunger for earthiness, honest bread-and-butter love and cheek alongside these overdressed toxic meringues. Gemma Arterton, in her best stage role yet, reveals a gift as a comedienne: sexy and mischievous, light as a feather and nonpareil at delivering a truly dirty song, yet able in the second half, to expose vulnerability and seriousness in her pregnancy, banishment from her lover’s deathbed, and shy saddened return to the stage family. She is, in her own words, a woman uninterested in “flopsome fops” but genuinely drawn to the reality of the lonely King. Any man she takes in company must, as she says, accept that women are “just as nutty and tangled as you are”.

Greg Haiste, I am happy to say, reprises his role as queeny Kynaston jealously guarding the female lead roles: when he flounces offstage it is with all the comic affront of Stephen Fry leaving Twitter. Michele Dotrice is pure delight as Nancy the dresser, who unexpectedly can translate the French whore’s insults because she once “‘Had a Thing with Moliere’s dresser”. There are jokes about Swift and cross-Channel politics, spirited songs by Nigel Hess slyly referencing the music-hall of two centuries later, a real life King Charles spaniel, and a gigantic comedy hat. It is pure essence of fun. And if only the RSC would bring into London its fabulous Queen Anne, those of us who were taught history really badly could skip on 17 years from the end of this play, and improve our education no end.

Box office 0330 333 4809 to 30 April
Rating four 4 Meece Rating

Comments Off on NELL GWYNN Apollo, W1

Filed under Four Mice




Call me a patsy and a soft touch, but you won’t find me sneezing at anything which – within twenty minutes of a deafening, blinding opening – offers me a giant flame-throwing Martian octopus, emerging onstage from a 50ft screw-top capsule with full orchestral backing. Though mind you, a bit of well-directed sneezing would have saved mankind some angst, since in H.G.Wells’ classic novel, the “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic” of the invading Martians fall victim to earth’s smallest creatures: bacteria.

Which is not a spoiler, since the story which Jeff Wayne retells in his prog-rock concept album has been spooking the world since Wells published it as a partwork in 1897. It is the emperor of sci-fi tales, apocalyptic and terrifying and moral, vivid with late-Victorian doubt about imperialism, the super-race idea and the dehumanization of the Industrial Revolution. As for Wayne’s lush string-splendid album, with sections of Wells’ splendid prose narrated by Richard Burton, it has been renowned since 1978. For Buckley himself to conduct it here – not just in some concert-hall or arena but as a full-staged operatic musical – is quite a coup for producer Bill Kenwright.

And, frankly, quite a risk. There’s a 23-piece orchestra onstage (gallant players presumably dazzled and deafened by the leaping flames, laser-eyed green monsters and blackouts). There are nineteen adult performers plus at one point innumerable children; Liam Neeson in video and hologram descends from the roof to narrate. There are assorted rolling gantries, giant cogwheels, a real stumping 40ft Martian war machine with green shining eyes crossing the stage (in front of the split orchestra and the gliding conductor, and over the cast). There are constant, stunning CGI video backdrops : design is by the rock-video master Ric Lipson of Stufish.

So the risk is not of things going wrong (they don’t) but the simpler, theatrical danger that the music and design and flames and searchlights would make it just a rock video: overwhelming any possiblity of intimacy and us actually caring about the characters – George the journalist hero, his wife, a combative artilleryman, a parson, and mankind in general represented by the ensemble. Being mere humans they risk being dwarfed by the huge goings-on behind and above them. Neeson is OK because he is a huge image overhead: but Michael Praed, Maddalena Alberto and the rest, despite their solo numbers could seem too small for the big, big scale of it. Staging could have worked against our imagination, rather than for it.

But here’s the wonder: that doesn’t happen. I was swept up, involved, awed at times. The visual effects are indeed stunning (even down to coloured leaves falling on the stalls during the rare romantic ballad “Forever Autumn”). But there is always a powerful sense under director Bob Tomson that the music really is conjuring it all up: that the demonic vigour of Wayne’s orchestra is somehow making these fierce visuals happen. The attack looks exactly as one would imagine (possibly in a light fever) that it would. The choreography is strong (Liam Steel) especially in the first attack with bodies flying high aloft, helpless; and later when the Martians overwhelm the earth with the Red Weed dancers under hellish light squirm and become terrible human tumbleweeds. When the hero walks through a dead London the corpses rise, black shapes against his living solidity, to dance despair around him.

The restless backdrops – whether Victorian sepia, open skies or squirming horrors and monsters – are never allowed to overwhelm Praed, Alberto, Jimmy Nail, Daniel Bedingfield, David Essex and the rest of the human players in their various important moments: the panicking clergyman who can only see Satan’s work, the Artilleryman dreaming of an underground empire, the hero himself walking towards death. And all the time the pounding, possessed, exuberant orchestra carries us from naiveté to terror to despair to hope. I had my doubts, but this extraordinary show does actually work. And there is even a wonderfully cheeky up-to-date coda which I definitely won’t spoil. Though it might startle some science correspondents.


box office 0845 200 7982 to 30 April
rating four 4 Meece Rating


Comments Off on WAR OF THE WORLDS Dominion , W1

Filed under Four Mice

THE ENCOUNTER Barbican and touring

If there is any theatre artist reliably able to draw you into a world of disorientation, time-slip, near-death and a sense of licking hallucinogenic frogs in a dislocated space-time contiuum and speaking the language of the jaguar, it is Simon McBurney of Complicité. He will mess with your head and shiver your heart.

In Edinburgh last summer, having missed its premiere myself I kept meeting colleagues emerging, blinking dazedly, from the premiere of this solo but high-tech production: muttering about binaural headphones, rainforests, theories of Time, and how on earth they were going to explain it in 400 words for the morning edition. Those free of such a duty were just radiantly pleased to have been there and to have experienced something rich and strange. Which ,of course, is an emotion familiar to most of us after any Complicité production.

So here it is at the Barbican, with a tour soon to ricochet between home and European cities , and a live-stream on the Guardian website on 1 March at 7.30. In brief, what McBurney is doing is relating the adventure of the late Loren McIntyre, an eminent National Geographic photographer who in 1969 was looking for the “unacculturated” Mayoruna tribe in the upper reaches of the Amazon. Following them, losing his trail, he lived among them without a common language for weeks or months, he no longer knew. They travelled, uprooting temporary villages, towards a ritual called “the beginning”. The westerner’s possessions – including camera – were taken or burned, leaving him “reduced to just a body”. He knew fear, exhaustion, near-starvation, panic, certainty of immediate death, and something beyond that: a strange telepathic communication with the headman and a philosophic broadening of his sense of time, space and reality.

He only related this journey later in his life; it became a book by the Romanian Petro Popescu, which Simon McBurney read twenty years ago and (after a journey of his own to experience the Amazon and the modern Mayoruna) resolved to make into theatrical storytelling.

But it is no mere ripping-yarn: trippy in another sense, it is presented by the teller (physically alone on stage but with a web of high technology) as an aural adventure. We must wear headphones; onstage are several microphones including a head-shaped “binaural”. In a light-hearted spirit he first roams round this, demonstrates how he can seem to move close to our heads, breathe on our neck, cross the “electrified paté” between our ears, make himself or others appear overhead or behind us, trick us into feeling rain and wind and fear and movement, and the geography of his own flat where he pre-recorded some sounds and voices.

Even during the most intense moments of jungle storytelling – some in McBurney’s normal voice, most though adopting the explorer’s deep American tones – there are interruptions: reminders that this is a tale we are being told by one man roaming around a big stage shaking, rattling, hitting things, losing himself in the story and being jerked back to the present. Perhaps a babel of expert voices calmly discuss the philosophy of time, oil exploration, or tribal fragility; or perhaps his five-year-old daughter enters the flat – where he suddenly is again – and wants a drink of water even as the explorer in the story is half-dead from thirst himself.

It’s mesmerizing. Sometimes you shut your eyes and think of it as an especially intense stereo broadcast; then open them and there is McBurney, sweating and moving and eating crisps (“Walkers – you’d think they’d lay on something better for press night”). But as it builds to the strange ritual frenzy and a rainstorm swells the imaginary river, the bland acoustic backcloth seems to shake and dissolve the universe, and we are drawn helplessly into sombre, sempiternal meditations on rebirth and reality and our tiny corner in nature. And we shiver, and as it ends realize that over two hours have passed.

box office to 6 March, then touring – UK sites Manchester / Brighton/ Oxford/
rating four 4 Meece Rating

Comments Off on THE ENCOUNTER Barbican and touring

Filed under Four Mice



Robert Icke’s new adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is best summarised as an update – and an Anglicisation. Played in contemporary clothes, with sprinkled swearwords (so often touted as modern shorthand for “relevance”), Uncle Vanya is now ‘Uncle Johnny’, Professor Serebryakov is simply ‘Alexander’, Dr Astrov is ‘Michael’. So far, so emphatically un-Russian; which, given the nation’s recent whirlwind love affair with War and Peace, seems just a slight pity, and any lingering “peasant” references in the text do now feel clangingly out of context. Nevertheless, Alan Ayckbourn had luck with his own 1930s Lake District setting of this play, Dear Uncle, and Chekhov’s cast of misfit characters, each lost in a lonely world of bitter unfulfilment, certainly translate smoothly into awkward, pent-up English gentry. What translates less well is Icke’s text on stage: when the adapter is also the director, the vital role of editor can get subsumed amidst general enthusiasm.

We are consequently presented with an enormous evening (with no less than three intervals) which sprawls and rambles like one of the overgrown forests the ecologically conscientious Michael is fighting so hard to conserve. The first and final acts, particularly, are begging for a sharp-edged axe: the first act moved into being with such titanic slowness that I wondered how we would ever get to the end of that, let alone the play, before the last Tube had swished away. The final scenes, though benefiting from wonderful cumulative power, begin to feel like one of those friends who spends half an hour on your doorstep saying goodbye repeatedly after a three-hour lunch. It’s all great: you just wish it would stop.

But happily, in the middle, there is much to marvel at, and the play gains in majesty and tension all night: it doesn’t so much command our attention as cajole us, gradually, into submission. Particularly fine performances from Tobias Menzies as the outrageously attractive, brooding doctor Michael, and Jessica Brown Findlay as a superbly gauche and troubled Sonya, can lift Icke’s adaptation into legend. Brown Findlay’s deliciously accurate observation of agonsingly shy adolescent movements, and her vivid natural delivery, feel brilliantly fresh. Paul Rhys’ delicately drawn Uncle John, trembling with elegant frustration, eventually reveals a fabulous (and very frightening) final rage. Strong support comes from Vanessa Kirby as a febrile, fascinating Elena, with Hilton McRae giving an object lesson in exquisite, sculptural phrasing as the elderly Alexander, though smaller characters can be less successful.

Hildegard Bechtler’s simple set, a steadily rotating open-sided cube with a few dotted pieces of old furniture, offers Icke the worst directoral temptation of all: characters literally jump through the invisible 4th wall to pour out their hearts to us, a trope as tired as it is obvious. But again, the quality of the resulting soliloquies goes far beyond such coarseness; thanks to the sheer quality of his actors, Icke just gets away with it. Similarly, while ensemble scenes can drag and stutter, private exchanges between pairs of characters are forensically intense. Worth staying for.


Rating: three 3 Meece Rating

Until 26 March 2016 at the Almeida Theatre: Box office 020 7359 4404

Comments Off on UNCLE VANYA Almeida, N1

Filed under Three Mice

HAND TO GOD Vaudeville Theatre, SW1


“Avenue Q meets The Exorcist” claim posters for Robert Askins’ Broadway hit, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel. Or “The Muppets play The Omen”. But for this West End cast – fabulously led by Janie Dee, Neil Pearson, and a remarkable turn from Harry Melling – we need a more British line. Just say that if Joe Orton had, perish the thought, got his hands up Sooty it might have turned out like this.
The opening moment is a bravura, stunningly foul-mouthed speech from a sock-puppet with a wide Muppety mouth, about how ideas of social and collective morality emerged from a lost “golden age when you could just shit anywhere”. But then we are in the mild surroundings of an American church basement classroom, where neat mumsy Marjorie – Janie Dee – is rather desperately preparing a Christian puppet show because “I can’t sing and I can’t preach”. The truculent teen Thomas (Kevin Mains) fancies her, her own son Jason (Harry Melling) is shy and troubled, and Jess (Jemima Rooper) is suspiciously keen to give her sock-puppet breasts.


It is not going well: Jason manages to have his puppet, Tyrone, sing “Jesus Loves me”, but already Tyrone has developed a deep bluesy sound that bodes no good. Pastor Greg – a sweetly wet Neil Pearson trilling “have a blessed day” and swearing “Oh, son of a biscuit!” declares his affection to an unresponsive Marjorie. We discover she is widowed, her husband having overeaten himself to death, and palpably losing her grip. Her controlling needy bossiness of her son Jason distresses them both, and when priapic teenage Thomas makes his move she goes – well, tonto. You’ve never seen Janie Dee this nuts, this destructive, violent, sexually voracious and prone to lunatic wrestling. Believe me, it’s a treat.


But meanwhile poor Jason is tormented by the puppet Tyrone, which never leaves his hand but grows an alternative Satanic personality, both defending and mocking him. Melling does it brilliantly, simultaneously performing both the boy’s timid horror and his hand’s anarchic evil. Lying in bed he quavers like a good church-boy ”I wanna be kind and respectful to women and care for my body and my mind”, whereon Tyrone in his other voice yells “No you don’t! Ch-er-rist!”. The Tempter’s lines are subtle too – this is actually a pretty subtle play about adolescent inner conflicts – observing mockingly “When your mother says to you sit still, be quiet, she is saying to you -stay small!”.


In company Tyrone is ever more violent and aggressive; his dominance over Jason is mirrored in another church room by Marjorie’s inner demons provoking another crazed aggressive-lustful encounter with Thomas. Who himself – a reflection in turn of Jason – is confusedly deep in calf-love. Pastor Greg can’t exorcise any of them, as Tyrone – Melling’s voice ever more deep-devil roaring, his sock hand gaping and gabbling — shouts unrebuked ” You’re a piecea shit, Pastor!” and grows teeth.



It is very funny at times, yet oddly tense and touching as Melling’s Jason cringes from the atrocities wrought under a wash of red light by Satan raging in glory at the end of his arm. A remarkable interlude of puppet sex with Jess’s busty blonde equivalent sees both the teenagers – who have never managed to speak their attraction as nervous young humans – standing side by side like embarrassed onlookers while their hands hump and quiver and gasp, seemingly of their own accord. Yet it is Jess, in her own voice, who asks the core question facing all confused angry teenage boys : “D’you wanna be a shallow violent puppet all your life?”.


Jason doesn’t. Not in the end. But there is more virtuoso , terrifying solo conflict as Melling nerves himself to reject Tyrone, in moments reminiscent of the Bible’s “If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off”. The moral – and it is such a moral comedy that even American evangelicals haven’t attacked its vigorous obscenity – is that demons are not external, and driving them out is entirely up to us.


But apart from the moral, admit that demons do have a sexy vigour denied to sweet pastors like Greg. In a coda, sockpuppet Satan neatly defines the play’s core by observing yeah, we need him, “but then we need him to go the fuck away”. And there’s no point “solving our problems by putting horns on them”. Nice.

box office : to 11 June
rating     four cussed puppet mice    4 Meece Rating

Comments Off on HAND TO GOD Vaudeville Theatre, SW1

Filed under Four Mice, Theatre




Its fame rolls before it: a debut play, premiered in London by Matthew Perry. To a generation of young adults (and to many far younger, thanks to ceaseless repeats) he is “Chandler from FRIENDS”. Moreover, Perry has openly talked about his alcoholism, amphetamine use and rehab, and contributes to allied causes. And the play itself, in which he stars, is about four of his contemporaries – the Friends generation now rising forty – living in New York and still not settled in life.


Small surprise, then, that the audience is young, prone to go “whoo!” at Perry’s first appearance in the bar-room set as the defiantly debonair Jack, declaring his unswerving dedicated to drink. Small wonder that some, near us ,were young enough to go “aaah’ at pushbutton romantic or touching moments. And, to be brutal, small wonder that the first half is low on subtlety or ambiguity (the four characters all, in US sitcom style, tend to say both to one another and sometimes direct to us, exactly what they mean and feel: no scope for guessing or revelation).

So there are moments of flat dismay in that first half, which had too much of a first-draft feeling for comfort. What happens is just that Jack the drunkard falls for Stephanie the beautiful, cynical high-class prostitute (Jennifer Mudge) and her neurotic, baby-hungry friend Stevie (Christina Cole) hooks up rather contemptuously with the apparently dim Joe (Lloyd Owen) even though he is, she moans, so stupid he doesn’t even have a therapist…


Thus there are moments in that first act when you glumly think that it’s just Sex and the City without the wit and one-liners, or Friends run to seed. The uncommitted might abandon it at the interval. But they shouldn’t. The second act catches fire, as at last some reality burns off the sitcom fluffiness. Stevie and Joe tentatively commit, because she’s pregnant, but Jack’s drinking becomes no longer cute and knowing but ugly and disruptive. An angry stalemate with Stephanie brings a rift when he won’t give up drink and she won’t give up escort work. In a telling line about drink he lays it out: without it, he is “needy, not funny and constantly afraid”.

A real crisis occurs around the pregnancy and the four find themselves in a hospital. The jokes become bitter; Perry is a terrific comedian (his gloomy announcement to an offstage nurse “You are not a nice person” is a delight). But when he leaves his distraught friends because he needs a bar, there is a real bitterness. Owen’s dim Joe, meanwhile, grows in decency and strength before our very eyes – a joy to watch = and this ironically means that the comedy around his comparative unsophistication is funnier (when he uses the world “vicissitudes”, the others stare in astonishment).
And it is Joe who finally bursts the bubble of frightened compulsion in the other couple. “There are ten million alcoholics in the world, talk to one of them! Life is not as complicated as you two make out. Stop being such fucking morons and sort your shit out!”.
So at last, in a moment of such genuine value to his generation that the play’s early weaknesses are forgiven, Perry steps forward as if at a first AA meeting, and delivers a speech which is wrenching, honest, deeply felt and lived. And if some fans leap to their feet in applause, you feel he earned it. As the author protectively says, it’s fiction, he is not Jack. But he knows him pretty damn well. And the use he is making of him is honourable.

box office 0844 871 7631.
to 14 May

rating three

3 Meece Rating

Comments Off on THE END OF LONGING Playhouse, SW1

Filed under Theatre, Three Mice

THE HERBAL BED Royal, Northampton then touring


The year 1613: somewhere offstage old Shakespeare is dying, and in her husband’s physic-garden, competent and dignified, his daughter Susanna assists her middle-aged husband Doctor Hall. She manages her small daughter and the maid Hester, laughs with the neighbour Rafe Smith who comes by to sell ribbons, and impatiently fends off the young buck Jack, a local grandee’s son who is supposed to be learning herbal medicine from the doctor. Jack, bright but unreliable, rattles off his lessons about worm-poultices, women with “irregular lunar evacuations” and the use of lead and turpentine against “Signor Gonhorrea, the Italian disease”. That is, when he is not sticking his hand in Hester’s skirt or conjuring up unwelcome memories of boyhood days when he, Rafe and Susanna all larked together by the Avon.

Peter Whelan’s play, revived with perfect timing in the quatercentenary, draws you in with effortless grace, evoking from the start both the period and the intimate family tensions . Emma Lowndes’ Susanna seems almost an Ibsen heroine, married to an undemonstrative academic and more than tempted by Rafe (Philip Correia) who is in an unhappy marriage after the death of his two children. Lowndes gives Susanna a spirited individuality, at first seemingly wrapped in duty, but wilder, on the edge of infidelity when she finds herself alone in the night-scented garden with Rafe, and “Love’s alchemy” makes wrong things right. He is the one who, gripped by honour, hesitates.

Their desire, though unconsummated, is almost her downfall when the irritated, sacked and arrogant Jack (Matt Whitchurch, every inch the Hooray Henry) drunkenly denounces her in the pub for adultery. Clerical court records of the year show that Susanna did defend such an accusation. The doctor reacts with disbelief and horror and defends her honour vigorously yet – with a marvellous, layered, ambiguous performance by Jonathan Guy Lewis – he knows deep down that his wife’s heart is not quite his. Susanna, only technically innocent, suborns Hester to a whiteish lie about the order of events on that evening. Again, the two women’s relationship is beautifully evoked (and Charlotte Wakefield’s Hester gets her great scene later on).

When it becomes clear that the Church court will not sit before the mellow old Santa-bearded Bishop but his Vicar-General, a suitable shudder runs through us because in an artful opening scene Whelan lets us glimpse Michael Mears’ Goche: a tall grim figure in Puritan black and tight cap who looms and shudders like a tall disapproving ferret as he condemns the morality of the doctor’s trade, since illness is clearly a divine punishment. We foresee trouble, and indeed when Jonathan Fensom’s pretty garden set abruptly becomes an echoing Worcester Cathedral, Mears gives a terrific pouncing, chilly, hypnotically alarming interrogation as poor Hester the country girl sways with cathedral vertigo, looking up at the soaring God-filled vaulting overhead.


So we have a society in change: passionate modern lovers, a dutiful decent scientist (“I am no bigot, I treat Roman Catholics, even a Popish priest”). We have the arrogant gentry hooray-Henry making trouble, and the cold Churchman grasping atavistically at Godly power. Director James Dacre, who leads this theatre, a few years back memorably directed another Whelan play , the WW1 story of The Accrington Pals. Here the same sense of careful respect of period combines with universal recognizable humanity in a tight, instinctively connected ensemble.


In his programme notes Dacre reflects on modern parallels: intrusion, private lives hypocritically exposed, a dramatic inquisitorial public inquiry. But for me the greatest pleasure was the sense of 17c smalltown England, lovingly and domestically evoked. Scientific effort and religious power, private desires defying convention, serious debates about honour and the heart: Shakespeare’s world. He may have set Othello and Iago in distant wars and made jealous Leontes a king, but he had seen their archetypes in just such a Stratford as this.

Box office: 01604 624811 / to 27 Feb
then touring to 7 May – Cambridge next.
rating four  4 Meece Rating

Comments Off on THE HERBAL BED Royal, Northampton then touring

Filed under Four Mice, Theatre

RABBIT HOLE Hampstead Theatre NW3



Pretty much everyone agreed – here and on its West End transfer- that the American David Lindsay-Abaire’s GOOD PEOPLE was a masterpiece, with its defiant, vigorous lead played by Imelda Staunton on barnstorming form, and a dryly humane treatment of class divisions putting it streets ahead of most recent British attempts on the theme. Now, this time under director Ed Hall, we have a slightly earlier play by the same author and there will be more division. Some may find blandness in its understated naturalism and want more firecracker emotional outbursts. But I honour it, and suspect that anybody who has lived through a deep and shattering grief, and seeks commonality of understanding, will do the same.


The playwright admits that he wrote it when he first became a parent, to face down the worst fear. Here Becca and Howie lost their five-year-old Danny in an accident eight months earlier: torpedoed by grief, with no blame to attach, they are treading separate paths of sorrow, perilously unable to converge. In restraint and in growth, Claire Skinner and Tom Goodman-Hill play it faultlessly. We first find Becca, a smart college-educated Sotheby’s girl turned full-time Mom, carefully folding two or three years’ worth of little Danny’s dungarees and T-shirts for the charity shop. I kept thinking of Shakespeare’s Lady Constance in King John:
“Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and own with me…
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form…”

But no such lyrical expression comes from Becca. Controlled, patient, tensely sensible, she has to listen to her rougher-edged sister Izzy (Georgina Rich) peering at her refined desserts – “Is that a pie?” “A torte” – and recounting a bar-room brawl with a woman whose boyfriend has – oh yeah – made Izzy pregnant. But she refuses the offer of Danny’s beautifully kept clothes because it would be “weird” if her child wore them. The bereaved mother flinches. Meanwhile she is gradually stripping the house of reminders, and wants to move. But Howie takes the other track, cherishes marks of his son, and wants the comfort of embraces and lovemaking which his wife refuses: even a shoulder massage is too dangerous, it is the very tension holding her together. So the father sits alone watching the last video of Danny; the mother upstairs in the dead child’s room. Ashley Martin-Davis’ scrupulous, intimate set underlines their division: she aloft, he far away alongside the stage in a tiny den, kitchen and living-room their arena of conflict. Penny Downie, as brash as Izzy, is the two women’s mother; a deus ex machina is Sean Delaney as the high school senior who drove the car when the child ran out, and who bravely needs to meet them for his own peace.



He does, finally, and we get the metaphor of the rabbit-hole, the wormhole in the universe down which we all peer for a better, parallel universe. That meeting is just about the only event: most of the play is finely judged and beautifully nuanced conversations over months. The grandmother torpedoes Izzy’s birthday with a laboured discussion about whether the Kennedy family was cursed, and whether Onassis died of grief, in order to challenge Becca’s attitude: Howie’s hurt emerges in a demand to let him have his exiled dog back home because Granny is overfeeding it.
Bathos, absurdity, foibles and class clashes are allowed into the mix; strong laughs as well as painfully attentive silences.


Familiar side-effects of grief are admitted: the irritation of comparison (the family also saw an adult brother’s addiction and suicide, and Becca won’t accept that her mother’s loss is like hers. There’s the classic offstage friend who can’t bear to get in touch so the grieving family is unfairly forced to make the running; the other kind of wrong friend, who enjoys “sharing” grief but doesn’t assuage it. Emotional outbursts are brief and deliberately curtailed, as in real life. It is subtle and truthful and wise, sad and funny and beautifully paced and acted. The resolution it offers is not insultingly simplistic, only a small hope that one day you can crawl out from under the grief and just carry it “like a brick in your pocket”.

Box office: 020-7722 9301 to 5 March

Rating   four

4 Meece Rating

Comments Off on RABBIT HOLE Hampstead Theatre NW3

Filed under Four Mice



The Master Builder, Halvard Solness, is universally acknowledged by his townsfolk as a lucky man: self-made and supremely successful in business, his good fortune is not due to skill or merit, but to a terrible accident many years ago, which also killed his twin sons and destroyed his marriage. However, it also gave him the ability to build and sell houses on the land where his wife’s treasured ancestral home once stood; local competition soon crumbled away, “making me the builder of homes, but at the price of never having a home of my own again.”  Rob Howell’s design surrounds the stage with shattered timbers, creating a precarious, imaginary world in which Ibsen examines the exhilaration, and guilt, of getting just what you wish for. Solness is not a man who has survived life’s trials, but rather one who is permanently enslaved by them, haunted by shameful memories, yet clinging defiantly to the position he has gained, convinced increasingly that whatever he wills will irrevocably come to pass. Ibsen processes this existential paradox through references to the trolls and demons of Norwegian folktale, linking this late play to his earliest works and bringing a tinge of surrealism to this otherwise viciously real human drama. Ralph Fiennes gives us both Solness’ callous cruelty, ruthlessly and deliberately insensitive to the plight of others in securing his aims, and his extraordinary personal vulnerability: almost mad with unresolved grief, his fortune poisoned by the absence of children, the word “nursery” stabbing repeatedly through his lines as those little rooms lie, forever empty, upstairs.

Much has been made of Solness’ intense relationships with the young girls on stage, his secretary Kaja Fosli (a warm, intense Charlie Cameron) and the mysterious arrival Hilde Wangel (a passionately sustained and self-possessed Sarah Snook), which have ready parallels in Ibsen’s own life. For director Matthew Warchus, it is not the bonds but the gaps between old men and young women that come across most forcibly: the constant mismatching, the fundamental misunderstandings, the unsatisfactory self-deceptions which only ever provide temporary, delusional escape from reality. It is Solness’ broken marriage with his wife Aline (Linda Emond) which reveals the most: he calls her “a greater builder than I… A builder of souls,” yet pain has frozen their continuing love for each other, now always, tragically, expressed to others – never to themselves. Eventually, exhausted by “being chained to a corpse”, Solness hurls himself towards Hilde, who proves herself to be the tragic inheritor of his power to wish ideas into reality: Hilde’s ten-year girlhood obsession with Solness is destroyed as it is finally fulfilled in a powerful climax which shatters the stage, as well as characters’ lives.

From its subtle opening scenes to its bloodcurdling finale, David Hare’s faithful new adaptation of The Master Builder takes us well beyond mid-life crisis into full-blown existential crisis. Occasional falters in pacing early on cannot detract from the ultimate power of this piece, mainly thanks to the strong cast, with fine supporting performances from James Dreyfus as a serious, compassionate Dr Herdal and Martin Hutson as a tremblingly furious Ragnar Brovik.

– Charlotte Valori

Rating: Four mice 4 Meece Rating

At The Old Vic, SE1 until 19th March. Box Office: +44 (0)844 871 7628

Comments Off on THE MASTER BUILDER The Old Vic SE1

Filed under Four Mice


This (I sneaked in to an early preview , because I am on holiday) was my third visit to
Lolita Chakrabarti’s play, starring her husband the matchless Adrian Lester (my Times review, paywalled, is on – an earlier review is on this site. I liked it from the start, , as everyone else did; was please to be one of those who voted both Chakrabarti and Lester their awards at the Critics’ Circle a couple of years ago. I called it “sharp and entertaining”, and was delighted by the tribute to a largely forgotten theatre hero: Ira Aldridge, a black American actor who in the 1830’s, even before slavery was anned ,replaced the ailing Edmund Kean as Othello at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. For two nights the “negro” strangled the milk-white Desdemona onstage before shocked, racist Victorian opinion stopped him. It is always fascinating to observe how much extreme racism has an element of sexual dread in it, a white man’s fear of the powerful black: living in South Africa as a teenager for an awful year, I remember that well. And you’ll find it too in that splendid musical MEMPHIS.



Anyway, I loved Lester’s performance – who wouldn’t? – and enjoyed the secondary theme – amusingly illustrated – of how acting was moving from Kean’s declamatory, stylized style towards more naturalistic and passionate performances. Thinking back, I remembered those things, and also moment when an embarrassed cast suddenly realize that the manager has bravely cast Aldridge and that he is black. I appreciated, too, the slyly feminist device of book-ending of the play with a scene in Poland as a young woman reporter, herself underrated and patronized, inveigles herself in to interview the aged actor whose successes across Europe never quite wiped out the memory of humiliation in London. I remembered the final scene when we see with a jolt that even this victory has required him, nightly, to “white-up” grotesquely with panstick to play King Lear, and the apposite rage of his final “I’ll not weep!” and threat of “the terrors of the earth”.



But seeing it yet again, and on the far side of Adrian Lester’s stunning and thoroughly modern Othello at the National Theatre – and, what is more – in one of those plushy Victorian theatres where it all happened – I can confirm again that as sometimes happens the play has grown bigger: stronger, more remarkable, finding deeper feeling in the deep red velvet folds of bygone theatricalia. There is now a more shocking magic in Aldridge’s deep, dark dignity and bitter banked-down rage; more charm and mischief of his lighter moments and the edgy intelligence of his discussions with his co-star Desdemona : once again a splendid, sparky Charlotte Lucas giving Miss Tree a courage and sexiness while maintaining our understanding that she has grown up Victorian. There’s real brilliance as the two meld stylized 1830s mannerisms with real emotion in the terrifying handkerchief scene which closes the first half. And there’s fascination – for us theatre anoraks – in comparing it with Lester’s interaction a couple of years back with his modern Desdemona, Olivia Vinall…



Mark Edel-Hunt is splendidly affronted as young Charles Kean, as is Emun Elliott as poor Laporte, the manager. There is real power and misery in Aldridge’s final row with Laporte, and generosity in the author’s letting him express the frustration of those who, faced with a moral choice, decide to keep their job rather than be Spartacus. Indhu Rubasingham’s production is a jewel in this Branagh season: we should all be grateful.

Box Office: 0844 482 9673
Online Bookings:
 to 27 feb

rating five   5 Meece Rating

Comments Off on RED VELVET Garrick SW1

Filed under Five Mice, Theatre