Monthly Archives: February 2016

MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS NOEL COWARD THEATRE SW1

GETTING THEM OFF FOR VICTORY, UP WEST

 
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

 

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THE RINSE CYCLE Charing Cross Theatre, WC2

 

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI GETS UNEXPECTEDLY CASUAL ABOUT HIGH CULTURE

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.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

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

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THE PATRIOTIC TRAITOR Park Theatre,

BANG THE DRUM FOR THIS ONE:  AN INTIMATE EPIC OF WAR AND FRIENDSHIP

 

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 http://www.parktheatre.co.uk to 19 march

rating five    5 Meece Rating

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THE TEMPEST Wanamaker at Shakespeare’s Globe, SE1

A FAREWELL TEMPEST, RICH AND STRANGE

 
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

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NELL GWYNN Apollo, W1

A RESTORATION OF HIGH SPIRITS..
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 http://www.nimaxtheatres.com to 30 April
Rating four 4 Meece Rating

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WAR OF THE WORLDS Dominion , W1

THEY CAME, THEY CONQUERED

 

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 http://www.dominiontheatre.com 0845 200 7982 to 30 April
rating four 4 Meece Rating

 

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THE ENCOUNTER Barbican and touring

McBURNEY ON, AND IN, THE BRAIN
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 barbican.org.uk to 6 March, then touring – UK sites Manchester / Brighton/ Oxford/
rating four 4 Meece Rating

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