Monthly Archives: March 2016

HOW THE OTHER HALF LOVES Theatre Royal, Haymarket SW1




We’re back in the 1960’s, and how! Beyond the jolly geometric curtain a bygone world revives. Shiny pink plastic boots, a ridiculous frilled sub-Laura-Ashley print dinner frock. Nicholas le Prevost doing breathless “Swedish jerks” before setting out for work with bowler and brolly, and coming home to prod suspiciously at an avocado pear , while entertaining a shy colleague for the sake of old-fashioned departmental teamwork. A lost world teeters uncomfortably between postwar formalities and hierarchies and the irreverent modern era. Julie Godfrey’s set straddles lifestyles, one sitting room representing two as cheap clutter and middle-aged Hyacinth-Bouquet gentility interweave: a sofa-cover changes two seats along ,or clothes dry on a baby’s playpen next to a grand French window.




In this we watch three very English marriages in three classes: Frank and Fiona are upper-management, she content with her economic, if not her sexual, fate, he an amiable bumbler with a streak of earnest sentimentality. Bob and Terry are younger, scrappy and sexy: he rising at work, she frustrated by babycare, writing letters to The Guardian and wanting a place in the world. Between them, stuck as it were back in the ‘40s, the Uriah-Heepish William is a meek accountant dominating and patronizing his still meeker wife Mary (“You have no idea how much work I’ve put into that woman”).



But never mind the social analysis, though in Alan Ayckbourn it is always lurking; this is a hoot, one of the craftiest , most theatrically innovative farces-of-manners we have, from the start of the great man’s career. Director Alan Strachan sets it firmly in its period, not only to make sense of the phone calls which sometimes drive the plot, but to emphasise that it is as much about class and status as mere adultery. That is going on, we rapidly learn, between Bob, fed up with his disaffected young-mother wife Terry (Tamzin Outhwaits), and posh bored Fiona . Jenny Seagrove as Fiona is gloriously poised (worth the ticket to hear her say the word “Woking”) and nicely mean in her dismissive attitude to her husband Frank.



Who, in the hands of Nicholas le Prevost, is a glorious, downright adorable anchor to the piece. Hapless and well-intentioned, virtuous and kind and disastrous as the complications unfold, exuding a kind of happy doomed optimism, he’s a dream. In a strong cast another standout is Gillian Wright as mousy Mary: respect for some some brilliantly awkward cardigan-and-glove work, apparently genuine hiccups, a credible earnestness when she grows a bit and resolves to “help” after Bob’s meltdown, and a killer delivery of her last line. Apologizing for her husband’s inability to apologize she murmurs “It’s hard for him. He’s never been wrong before”. As to Matthew Cottle’s William, I have never known an actor so good at blushing bright red, to order….


The remarkable staging is deftly used: way ahead of its time, Ayckbourn puts the actors in two places and sometimes two different days at once, while sharing the set or even the same sofa and table, and seeming obvlivious of one another. The famous dinner-table sequence is matchless: Ayckbourn’s syncopation of mood as elegant as a fugue , our complicity in the pretence just pure, unfilmable theatre. Hard to imagine it being done better.  Head for the cheese, mice!

box office 0207 930 8800 to 25 June

RATING five   5 Meece Rating


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What’s going on? Who are the people in the next flat, why are they so friendly and yet so odd? Are they commonplace swingers, murderers, or a delusion brought on by grief, solitude and thwarted sexual need? Or are they – gulp – actually dead all the time? Why is their adult son Francois covered in scars and prone to Tourettish shouting? For a few seconds you think it’s overacting, but no: this is Dyfan Dwyfor, seasoned chap, very good as Yuri Gagarin five years ago; and the director is Sir Michael Boyd, no less. So it’s Francois who’s deliberately made so odd. Good grief, odder still in twenty minutes’ time.

Though hang on, there’s oddity everywhere: is it perhaps possible that the only character who is actually real is LIndsey’ Campbell’s tormented, confused Alice, adrift in a hideous wonderland of white-rabbit husband Ben (Sean Biggerstaff) and the intrusive neighbours. Oh, and where is the crying baby, if that is what it is? And where did the props people source a squeaky rubber duck with such a worrying timbre? Not to mention the fifth and final member of the cast, of whom we shall not speak for fear of spoilers…


The head spins, pleasantly, and the heart stirs with unexpected shafts of proper pain. New Francophone playwrights in translation are invading our theatre scene, and very welcome too. A sharp fresh playfulness emerges , not Genet-style sadism or glum existential solemnities, but a sort of skewed naturalism which uses the fact of live theatre itself to explore the perilous shores of familiar emotion . And, quite frankly, mess with your head. We have just had Florian Zeller making us experience the edges of dementia in THE FATHER and maternal need and delusion in THE MOTHER, before twisting around into the brilliant near-farce of THE TRUTH. And now here is Catherine-Anne Toupin, another French-speaker (though in Québec) , elegantly translated by Chris Campbell of the Royal Court.

On the face of it, here’s a standard urban fiction setup: a weird-people-in the next apartment story. LIke Rosemary’s Baby, The Ones Below, or half a dozen comedies. But from the first moments it deploys a particular unease that theatre is good at showing: it is clear that Alice is depressed or distressed, not sleeping, and her husband Ben, a young doctor, worn out by her crisis. Which has something to do with the – possibly non-existent, or lost – offstage baby. Which in a fleeting moment later, you think Alice may have killed. Or not. But one of the three members of the neighbour family – whose apartment, with metaphorical symmetry is said to be “the same but the other way round” – may also have done a dark thing, long ago. Or not.


I would hate you to think it is doomy. Apart from the crazed Francois, the parents are at times and at first, pure comedy : Guy Williams as an urbane, whimsically sociable Gilles, once-famous author of a (probably psychology) text, and Maureen Beattie going for broke, Abigail’s-Party style, as an overbearingly friendly Juliette with Morticia Addams pageboy hair, ferocious maternal authority, and a sequence involving unseen underwear. Which had the whole theatre focusing, in shock, at her white knees in case she fulfilled the threat to part them.


So on it goes: the tone sometimes erotic, sometimes comic or banal then suddenly inappropriate. At one point (when Dwyfor goes really nuts) quite violent. And at last, the point of the mirror-image flat metaphor is reached in a surreally and really frightening conclusion. Another metaphor hovers then, of the behaviour of parent cuckoos towards weaker birds. And again Lindsey Campbell’s delicately drawn Alice makes your heart turn over in horrified empathy. What is real, what ever has been, was it all a nightmare, how deeply can birth or the lack of it destabilize a woman? Creepy, rather brilliant. Power to the Bush, Traverse and Ustinov for bringing this to us. I have little hope for quiet dreams tonight.


box office 020 8743 5050 to 12 April
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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“God” says Christopher Riley, donnishly, “has a severely limited intellect”. Jack Lewis, his Magdalen colleague, demurs with affectionate impatience, secure in a religious faith which borders dangerously on the smug. At first, anyway. The port circulates. Their 1950’s Oxford world is scholarly, limited, safe from women. When Lewis strikes up an intellectual friendship with an American correspondent, Joy, she hits this stagnating pond with a splash. Riley attempts his theory that only men have intellect – “animus” – women instead merely have soul “anima”. Sweetly, Joy explains that as an American unused to his culture, she “needs guidance. Are you being offensive or just stupid?” .

Wonderful. And perhaps that, in William Nicholson’s wonderful portrait of their relationship, marks the moment when C.S.Lewis, Christian apologist and bachelor, begins to lose his heart to this brave, odd woman intellectual who he was to marry and to lose within years to a savage cancer.

The 1990 play is an imagining, but based on close intuitive attention to Lewis’ own writings (notably The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed) It has become a modern classic. But this is by some distance the most arresting, intelligent production I have seen (beating even the BAFTA-winning film with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger). It is a perfect ensemble: Stephen Boxer as Lewis has what I can only call an RSC seriousness: you believe in his belief, smile at his almost childlike delight in the unexpected pleasure of married companionship, and are as shaken as he is at the loss of Joy so soon after his finding her.

Boxer never overstates, sometimes almost allowing himself to fade into greyness alongside the more flamboyant Common-room set. Amanda Ryan, a little more glamorous than the real Joy, has a vividness which makes the love affair real, and carries beautifully a sense of the her conflicted feelings – friendship , frustration – when Lewis agrees to marry her purely for visa purposes. Alongside them intermittent moments with Simon Shackleton’s Riley remind us of the tug of safe cynical academia, and there is a more frequent, wholly delightful performance by Denis Lill as Lewis’ brother Warnie. Unintellectual, suspicious of femaleness, gently and half-unwillingly he warms towards Joy and – in profoundly moving moments – towards her schoolboy son Douglas, who was to go on living with Lewis after her death. It is genuinely beautiful.

Alastair Whatley’s production never misses a heartbeat: it is simply enough set, but a moment of innovative staging when the child dreams of a magical Magician’s- Nephew cure for his mother is gently but unforgettably handled. Whatley and Anne-Marie Woodley design, with elegant economy. The only quibble I have is that the dons’ suits are too smart. In a West End production some years ago I have never forgotten the obsessive wardrobe care which went into distressing Professor Riley’s corduroys with a worn patch exactly – exactly! – where the Bodleian Library tables rub against one’s leg.



Is that a flaw? No. Nothing is. And the central message of Joy to her lover – the famous “that’s the deal” – strikes as sharp to the heart as ever. I saw it in an Ipswich matinee with a quiet-breathing rapt audience. The tour goes on: it’s at Windsor now, fittingly for the week of Easter (01753 853 888) and there are at least nine more cities before 30 July. Catch it.

tour details      5 Meece Rating
Rating: five

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REASONS TO BE HAPPY Hampstead Theatre, NW3


I had almost forgotten seeing the first in this Neil laBute trilogy – Reasons to be Pretty – until the looming, hapless figure of Tom Burke as Greg had rambled defensively through his first anxious exchanges with the two women in his life. For Burke played the same big, amiable hunk in the Almeida’s production (directed, like this one, by Michael Attenborough and designed by Soutra Gilmour round a similar giant fold-out crate).



LaBute picks up the story of the four friends at the point where Greg, the one with college ambitions, has graduated and is going for teaching jobs while the others stay blue-collar in the factory or hair salon. But Greg and Steph have broken up, and she has married someone offstage called Tim; the play opens with her screaming at Greg in a car park for taking up with Carly – who has split from the boorish Kent, is raising his child alone and working the night shift at the factory. Steph, in the opening rant, claims that this puts a kink in the ‘arc of her friendship” with Carly. Though later it turns out that her motives are less purely sisterly, and friendship was never going to get in the way of her deciding to dump invisible-Tim and claim back Greg. Who meanwhile has got Carly pregnant.



So yes, there we are again, embroiled in the lives of four young Americans who have rashly embarked on pair-bonding and parenthood before getting anywhere near emotional adulthood. And, I cannot lie to you, despite laBute’s famous skill the first half is pretty dull: its only vivacity comes from Lauren O’Neil’s shrieky, needy, flirty, self-absorbed, proudly ignorant Steph, a portrait more misogynistic than most British playwrights would dare. When Greg tries to vary their dining experience by trying a Turkish restaurant all Steph can say is “Turkey – sounds kinda European… we live in America for Godssake, who gives a shit” before moving on to demand shrilly that he declare he loves her.



Robyn Addison’s Carly is allowed more dignity, what with the three-year-old at home, but has her own brand of neediness, begging (ah, male playwrights!) for the privilege of giving him a blow-job. Greg becomes ever more confused and verbose in trying to sort out his feelings, so that (in the brighter second half) to borrow a feminist trope it becomes like watching two fishes quarrelling over a bicycle. Or recalls a memory of Bernard Levin’s remark about Cecil Parkinson’s affair with his secretary and return to his wife all those years ago – “He seems to adopt a policy of promising to share his life with whichever lady has most recently spoken sharply to him”.



That second half certainly is better, not least in one good scene between Burke and Warren Brown as the crass action-man football coach Kent , who despises books and is horrified at the ambitious Greg’s decision to get a job in New York “Fuck! Why would you ever go there? Dude, people try to blow it up for a reason!”. The old friends, one moving up the social ladder away from the other, communicate best in the end with escalatingly violent punches on the shoulder, the last language they share. But Greg must face the final showdown with the two women, and contemplate the possibility of actually growing up.



All in all, though, it isn’t a patch on the first play. We are promised a third in the trilogy – “Reasons to be pretty happy” in which they all meet again at a High School reunion.

Box office: 020-7722 9301 to 23 April
rating three    3 Meece Rating

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Well, you’ll never see our Kenneth Branagh more exuberantly violent, nor tumbling into more compromising positions; nor so crazedly drugged, veering from a bout of the  ketamine-staggers to full amphetamine mania with a loaded Heckler and Koch automatic in a hotel bedroom . Or having his neat arse twice injected through his Gents navy s trouserings,  as worn by high-class hitmen when prone concussed on beanbags. .   Nor will you observe many more engaging examples of an infuriated road to bromance than this: Branagh and Brydon, a masterclass in aggressive contrast.  There were moments when I quite wanted to dislike this boys’ own lark, but I never managed it, so power to them both.
For its been a hot week for slightly black–hearted French maitres de farce on the London stage. Yesterday the Menier unveiled the Hampton translation of Florian Zeller’s peerless, subtle four- handed intrigue THE TRUTH, and tonight we got this:  Sean Foley’s version, reset in modern London and directed by himself, of the 1969 Le Contrat by Francis Veber. In adjoining hotel bedrooms, complete with a nicely camp porter (Mark Hadfield) we have our heroes.  Rob Brydon is the suicidal smalltime Welsh photographer , planning to hang himself because his wife has gone off with her psychiatrist. Beyond the handy connecting door Branagh is the suave determined hitman, preparing for his final job manning the window sniper-style and wiping out a gangster on his way to trial .

Only of course the shutter keeps sticking, and the porter enrols him to look after Brydon’s hopeless Welshman after his rope brings the ceiling down. The killer concurs because time is running out and he can always garotte the pest, only it is interrupted and he has to pretend its a shoulder-rub. And all the while Brydon remains innocent, needy , grateful and garrulous.  Indeed for the first half of this neat 90 minutes it is Brydon’s performance which  holds it together: observes the old comedy rule , he takes poor Dudley absolutely seriously: living every despair, need , and moment of sunny vapidity.   Branagh  – before the no-spoilers drug incident – plays against him with earnest irritated solidity, and it is splendid.

But then we get a wildly improbable psychiatrist , the disputed wife (Claudie Blakley) , a series of embarrassing apparent gay sexual tableaux to affront and excite the porter, some courageous underpant acting and nifty basic door-work, and that essential farce moment when you think, “hang on, is there or is there not still a concussed police officer in that wardrobe?”

After the ice -cool naturalist messing-with-your- head of yesterday’s five-mouse Zeller,  this is all more familiar turf: but it is a good notch or two up from the – now slightly tired – world of traditional Whitehall or Feydeau sex farces.  As a refreshing sorbet in this serious – and sometime thrilling – Branagh season, it is ideal. Respect to it, skimpy underpants and all.   I got so fond of the duo in the last scene that I really hope they don’t hurt themselves on all those doors.


box office 0330 333 4811 to 30 April
rating four 4 Meece Rating

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Its’ a while since so many shrieks, barks and snorts of laughter shook the seats around me: don’t take your drink in, you’ll risk doing the nose trick in the first two minutes. It may be, given a particularly fine depiction of alpha- male pride and panic by Alexander Hanson, that a bit more of the laughter was – ahem! – female. But there were definite guffaws , sheepish or vengeful recognition from the blokes too.  For this is a punch-in-the-guts, cruelly affectionate,  whip-smart ninety-minute treat.   Seasoned comedy director Lindsay Posner, fresh from the considerably less brilliant The End of Longing, must have thought all his birthdays had come.

The hilarity of the peace – for all its potential bittersweetness – is slightly unexpected, since this is the latest of Christopher Hampton’s fine, subtle translations of plays by the Frenchman Florian Zeller . THE FATHER , which gave Kenneth Cranham a career-crowning hit, did allow some sad laughs but is a portrait – an experience, almost – of dementia. THE MOTHER is about fragile maternal obsession.  Both wowed London with odd,  brilliantly theatrical dislocations and tricks of perception, a delicate, deliberate sowing of uncertainty which some will call Beckettian (though Zeller is more accessible and less doomy) and others will call Pinteresque (though frankly the Frenchman is better: not as bullying or as pretentious as our Harold).
This play is lighter than the last two we saw, halfway to farce at times though not with farce’s crassness. There are two couples: Michel (Alexander Hanson) is having an affair with his best friend Paul’s wife Alice (Frances O’Connor). This we know for sure, because we first see them in a hotel bed. From then on, however, we are never quite sure in any of the encounters who is lying, who is believing who, which of them is pretending not to know something they do actually know (or do they?) , and who is lying about whether they told another one the truth.


There is Michel’s wife Laurence (Tanya Franks), sleek and unreadable but suddenly seeming open and friendly; , and Robert Portal as Paul deploying an unnerving deadpan. Between them and Alice Michel – the only one whose feelings are made transparent – rattles in increasing unease. Hanson, reddening in the face, at times almost biting the chic white walls, lurches between blustering overconfidence, defensive outrage , and (very French) chop-logic argument about when it’s kinder to lie.


The whole is a virtuoso display of zinging lines, laughingly cruel perceptions about male behaviour (oh, the tennis match!) and emotional handbrake-turns and screeching halts. But, to carry on that metaphor: as in the late Top Gear debacle, all the skids and wheelies are never far from a Cenotaph of real pain: real love, real betrayal.  At one point Michel asks “just what sort of a play we are in, comedy or tragedy?” A bit of both. And very classy it is too.

box office 0207 378 1713 to 7 May
rating: five   5 Meece Rating

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NOTMOSES Arts Theatre, WC2



On the banks of the Nile, the princess of Egypt lifts a Jewish baby from the Nile waters, but changes her mind, chucks him back and chooses a prettier one. The reject survives, is named Notmoses and winds up among the toiling Jewish captives, under a camp, leatherclad slavedriver who enjoys skipping with his whip as they build the Pyramids (“Its a pyramid scheme, we sell them before they’re finished”). The chosen Moses struts around as a Prince of Egypt until God tells him to lead the people to freedom after inflicting seven plagues on the captors, including a rather pleasing shower of frogs. It is, however, Notmoses and his girl Miriam who prove more effective, and who challenge the psychopathic spite and caprice of the Old Testament God, who booms and thunders from the skies and flickers in the Burning Bush.


Gary Sinyor, writer-director, acknowledges his debt to Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and it must be said that this play has its heart in the right place, questioning and mocking the more fossilized aspects of religious observance. There are some reasonable gags about dietary and clothing laws and the affinity of Jews and Arabs in the ancient desert. Fine. It is, as Sinyor writes in the programme, hard to imagine a world where Jews don’t laugh at themselves. “the Jews can take a joke only because we have confidence. Where is Jewish humour strongest? In the USA, where the community is more secure in itself than anywhere in the world”.


Fine. It could have worked. But it doesn’t, not at full length. A fast-moving, unbroken 85 minutes, culling the worst jokes and polishing the best, could have given it a Reduced-Shakespeare kind of charm, and still made its final point – about rigidity, about conflict, about women. It is an agreeable idea that Miriam has to lead the exodus in a false beard because Moses has Passover matzo constipation. Greg Barnett and Thomas Nelstrop are watchable as the Moseses, Antonia Davies assured as the Pharaoh’s sister-wife; Joe Morrow as the camp slavedriver is fun in a Carry-Onway. But it’s slow, too often juvenile, more like a university freshers’ revue than a professional show. Disappointment creaks through a friendly audience.


But – Sinyor being a successful film-maker – I must admit that the projections are very fine – Egyptian scenes, distant labouring slaves, the Nile, the Red Sea. Trouble was taken. More of that trouble should have involved cutting, sharpening and comic timing.

box office 0207 836 8463 to 14 May
rating one

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COSI FAN TUTTE /COSI Kings Head Theatre, N1


Pairing a copper-bottomed opera classic (Mozart’s Così fan tutte) with an imported Australian play exploring the idea of mounting that very opera in a mental asylum amidst Vietnam war protests (Lowra’s Cosi) is a brave and interesting idea from the King’s Head Theatre. It was always unlikely that the play would ever surpass Mozart and Da Ponte’s painfully callous dissection of infidelity, often billed as a comedy but really a far darker and weirder creature, and the opera definitely comes off best in this duel. Paul Higgins’ modern update of Mozart moves the action to a TV show of the Jerry Springer variety, which proves an ideal vehicle for translating its hysterical atmosphere and strange emotional gamesmanship: a shiny mirrored set, digital screen captions (“Your fiancées will cheat on you”), use of live video feed and even occasional incursion from an in-house bouncer when group tensions threaten violence (don’t we all love those bits?) all contribute to the semi-comic, ultimately heartless ‘human zoo’ phenomenon which is entirely familiar to us, dramatised across multiple channels every day. Don Alfonso (Steven East) is a suitably oily celebrity host, Despina (the significantly gifted Caroline Kennedy) his long-suffering, sassy production manager, boasting a range of comic accents as well as her warm, bright soprano, while our lovers are sung impeccably by a talented young cast including a standout performance from Stephanie Edwards as an exceptional Fiordiligi. I can’t often admit that I don’t actually like Così fan tutte much, but Higgins’ production conveys its strange dynamics with such skill and care that even I found I stopped resisting, and started enjoying it: and this cast, with unstinting energy and noticeably sparky pacing, showcase Mozart’s gorgeous music as the flourishes of genius all night. Warmly recommended.

Pacing, unfortunately, is one of the chief problems of Lowra’s Cosi: although it, too, contains some wonderful performances (particularly from soft-voiced Susie Lindeman as an enchantingly unhinged Ruth, Nicholas Osmond as a withdrawn, yet passionate Henry, and Paul-William Mawhinney as the earnest young director Lewis), there are gaps and flaps everywhere, which nuke otherwise comic possibilities. Sometimes a joke comes across with Pinteresque darkness: “I’ve been having treatment for my pyromania,” remarks Doug (Neil Toon) casually as he lights a horrified Lewis’ cigarette with a Zippo that we’re sure Doug shouldn’t have. But then, instead of gracefully leaving that to fester in the imagination as Pinter would have done, Lowra pushes it too far: this joke soon wears thin as Doug sets fire to the theatre repeatedly. Too often, Cosi takes the easy route, with quick pot shots at its parent opera, not often getting under the piece’s skin in anything but the most obvious way. Consistency is another problem, with some cast members repeatedly tempted (or encouraged) to overact; Wayne Harrison is an esteemed director, but this piece feels altogether misjudged for a world-weary London audience, and badly in need of an edit.


For the opera: Four 4 Meece Rating

For the play: Two 2 meece rating

At the King’s Head Theatre until 2nd April for the play, 3rd April for the opera. Box Office: 020 7226 8561

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This theatre is certainly fearless about potentially tasteless names – Bad Jews, Urinetown, now Miss Atomic Bomb: the first two of those, however, turned out hits. This one probably won’t, though it’s good to see a British team hurling itself at a big American theme. It’s set in the brief, stunningly ill-advised period between 1951 and 1954 when US Cold-War patriotism and dread of Commies flared – literally – into a positively celebratory series of atomic tests in the Nevada desert. The Bomb became a tourist draw: Las Vegas called itself Atomic City USA, onlookers crowded only ten miles from the blast in plastic sunglasses to admire the extra sunrises and flashes “brighter than a thousand suns”. Soldiers were ordered to crawl close in to observe – and receive – effects, and a “DoomTown” was built, with mannequins of homes and families – and live pigs – to test how the blast affected them and whether it really melted glass. And people. All this, note, less than a decade after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.



The musical is by Gabriel Vick, Alex Jackson-Long and Adam Long (who also co-directs with choreographer Bill Deamer). A failing hotel, owned by New York hoods who shoot failures, needs a gimmick and lights upon a beauty pageant. Into this comes the hotelier’s brother Joe, an army deserter on the run, and pretty Candy Johnson the farm girl (Florence Andrews) whose trailer is being repossessed due to Grandma Chastity’s nightlife habit, thus thwarting her ambitions to move to California with her (rather improbable) aspiring fashion designer friend Myrna. Who is played by Catherine Tate with an unaccountable semi-Australian accent and a lot of trademark mugging. Thirteen other cast provide Mafiosi, showgirls, military, a lecherous atom-scientist, a repo man, and some retro Utah rustics whose sheep dropped dead in the “funny snow” (livestock did that, a lot. The US Army would robustly explain that it must be “malnutrition”).

So, OPPENHEIMER it ain’t: and as satire, perhaps sixty years late. Though frankly, in the age of Trump one does sense a resurgence of that American overconfidence and gung-ho naffery; and it did open on the day that Kim Jong Un threatened to “burn Manhattan to ashes”. So the Bomb’s still with us. But it’s brash, brutal, blackly comic, and noisy. Structurally a bit of a problem – too many jokey plotlines shoehorned in, such as Joey disguising himself as a rabbi because there are spare rabbi costumes from Easter when his dumb brother ordered rabbit ones. Geddit? There are also, despite some sharp lyrics, actually far too many same-y big numbers – their tone in some cases just musical-theatre-by-numbers. Set pieces are crammed together with too little room for acting and character development in between.

The second half is better, once the pageant acts get going (one, patriotic, one endearingly slutty , finally a soulful one from Candy). And there are some standout performances; Andrews herself proves a proper musical star as Candy, though is best served by the more C &W numbers like “How can I be a a beauty queen when all my sheep are gone?”. Dean John-WIlson is a likeable Joey, Gavin Cornwall a boomingly fine basso General (and chief hood). And Stephan Anelli stops the show as the nerdy atom scientist with his “Fallout is your Friend!” number.

Catherine Tate herself is oddly underpowered, but has one good comic number in the second half with the hotelier (Simon Lipkin) when they both admit their gayness and vow to marry as “A sugar Daddy and a beard”). And there are good tap routines, one involving a contribution from a corpse; and among the dancers is a Strallen, which is dynastically necessary to any classy Brit musical: it’s Sasi Strallen this time, a new one on me but well up to snuff. So by the end, my third mouse advanced shyly towards the cheese. But it was touch and go for a while.



box office 0844 264 2140 to 9 April
rating three    3 Meece Rating

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SOMEWHERE IN ENGLAND Eastern Angles, touring

In 1942 the Americans came to rural Britain: the US Eighth Air Force, its members often outnumbering local villagers 50 to 1. Many were black, often from the segregated Southern states. This fascinating starkly set four-hander by Polly Wiseman draws on records and East Anglian memories of how it was: notably (since the older generation is nearly gone) conversations with those who were local children: slipping (as children will) in and out of the bases, making friends across fences, listening to parents’ conversations, noticing big sisters’ flirtations.
So it is about wartime relationships and tensions, but also, inevitably, about racism. And about the counter-intuitive fact that the locals – white, rustic, unsophisticated – often welcomed the “coloured” GIs more than the swaggering young white airmen, to whom they were warm-beer peasants and their lowlier fellow-servicemen just “niggers”. The record is clear, though rarely exposed: last year’s book FORGOTTEN by Linda Hervieux tells of the day in Lancashire when locals fought alongside with black servicemen against the military police. Here in Suffolk, one pub was serving black GIs alongside locals when brash white Americans came in and tried to expel them. The landlord promptly threw out the white guys. George Orwell, in Tribune, actually observed that “The general consensus of opinion seems to be that the only American soldiers with decent manners are the Negroes.” Unfair court-martials and bullying were frequent: Eisenhower himself had to revoke the death penalty on one black GI wrongly accused of rape in 1944.
I relate all this because it would be easy to dismiss Wiseman’s play as politically correct varnish, were it not that such memory supports it. At its centre is a dignified, solid, ultimately immensely moving performance by Nathanael Campbell as Joe: a young engineer from Alabama (“I’m not a cottonpicker!”) who “didn’t join up to be a janitor in uniform” but must dig ditches and shift muck. In contrast is the strutting but increasingly nervous airman Chester (Joshua Hayes). He tries and fails to pick up Viv, a land girl (Georgia Brown). She is half-heartedly engaged to a merchant sailor; when she meets Joe, though, it’s love, touchingly expressed in her sense that his difference makes her world bigger.
Darting around is little Ginny (Grace Osborn, convincingly playing as young as 13), a too-bright farm kid prevented by her family from going to grammar-school. She sees all, and approves greatly, as she has a joshing friendship with Viv’s young Othello. But such a liaison is dynamite: in the background there are WVS stricture on “good conduct for young women”, and – this presumably is researched – a deliberate rumour that black GIs all have VD.
I was, for a while, uneasy that this might be the obvious play to write, with a pat moral. But it moves on, tipping nicely into harsh incident and fresh perception. Chester, at first clumsily patronizing about liking gospel-music and so forth, is torn between his jealous dignity and instinct towards decency; Viv, at first so brave in love, panics at the consequences: a potential “mongrel” baby and the fact that interracial marriage is illegal in Alabama and still tricky in Suffolk. Her fiancé returns from sea, Joe gets arrested for for defending himself against Chester, and the girl’s cry of “I”m not brave!” is heartbreakingly authentic.

Little Ginny, on the other hand, is far too brave, and a naive attempt to save Joe in court-martial makes things considerably worse. In the background we get Hayes and Brown doubling, he as an American anti-racism campaigner , she as the influential Lady Reading, who represents the establishment of the time and its fear that Commonwealth troops would rebel if US forces’ racism was reported. It is perhaps a cartoonish portrayal, and a small flaw in the play.

But with Campbell’s remarkable Joe now prowling the stage “unseen” in fetters, singing the spiritual “Hold on!”, the power of the piece survives it. A final flashback to the child’s first meeting with the black GI is unexpectedly affecting. Joe’s reading to home, censorship rules keeping it vague – “I dug a ditch today. Somewhere in England”.
The play tours right across the Eastern counties till June, often one-nighters in robust Eastern Angles style – but with a good run in Ipswich and site-specific performances in Debach Airfield, which could be thrilling . The cast’s strength can only grow: and Nathanael Campbell is already a name to watch.
http://www.easternangles.couk for dates and contacts. Touring to June

rating Four   4 Meece Rating

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This is a sharp bit of work by Derby, marking 60 years since John Osborne’s splenetic debut blew the lid – so theatre legend insists – off a complacent postwar anyone-for-tennis world. LOOK BACK IN ANGER was condemned as “squalid” by some, but hailed by Tynan for pinpointing a depressed, anarchic, resentful class hostility of working-class youth sick of wartime deference but not yet liberated by the ‘60s. It’s especially sharp since Derby – where Osborne was working as a stroppy stage manager in a failing marriage – actually turned down the play first time round.
So here it is again: a theatre monument in itself (how Osborne would hate me saying that!). And here is that dread ironing-board, at which poor Alison stands, berated on a long dull postwar Sunday afternoon by her husband Jimmy Porter , comforted by the amiable flatmate Cliff, rescued by her ex-Raj Colonel father and visited by her posh friend Helena.
Pleasingly, the matinee audience actually gasped at the shocking moment in Act 2 between Jimmy and Helena: that’s how half-forgotten this play is. I have, since a schoolgirl encounter, always felt about Look Back In Anger much the way Alison must have felt about Jimmy: drawn by the energy, wit and invective, but unable to live with the viciousness. Jimmy – chief voice of the play – is frankly a great big ADHD toddler: sulky, resentful, terminally inconsiderate, surrounded by a litter of books but wasting time jeering at the Sunday papers; yearning for “bite, edge, drive, enthusiasm, Hallelujahs” but energized more by laddish brawls with Cliff and contempt for his upper-middle wife’s mother (“Overfed overprivileged old bitch, pure evil”) and her Anglo-Indian father “a sturdy old plant left over from the Edwardian wilderness”. When his own mother dies, and pregnant Alison has left him for a bit, he yowls for his own bereavement while snarking that his wife is a “selfish woman” and dismissing her pregnancy. His“Why do we let these women bleed us to death?” annoyed me fifty years ago, and still does.
But seeing the play again, done with vigour under Sarah Brigham’s direction in a lovingly rundown set, I relished subtler Osborne moments. He allows humanity to the old Anglo-Indian Colonel (Ivan Stott) and posh Helena’s speech on right and wrong has a sharp clarity , something which an audience can fasten onto for support in JImmy’s more tempestuous world which fetishises only suffering and hopelessness. . Daisy Badger is terrific as Helena, brittle poise covering real softness . Patrick Knowles’ square-set, sulky Jimmy is fully in command of the invective, and indeed of the ghastly bear-and-squirrel baby-talk which is the flip side of the weak-willed revolutionary. Augustina Seymour shines as Alison: silent and enduring at first, depressedly pragmatic, finally half- destroyed by grief over her lost baby.
As for its role in reflecting more widely on a lost Britain and the effort to find a new one, I would meanly say that Alan Bennett actually hits that key more cleanly in Forty Years On. But this raging, flawed black diamond of 1955 is worth polishing up, and Brigham does it proud.
And so to JINNY – the hour-long companion-piece Derby commissioned to play in the same scruffy flat (ironing board and all). It is set in 2015, among a newer generation of 25-year-olds frustrated by lack of opportunity and resentment of the posh. In Jane Wainwright’s monologue the principal is not Jimmy but a Jinny, a young woman on a zero-hours contract who aspires to be a singer-songwriter. Joanna Simpkins, with wild red-tipped hair and a Tracey Emin scowl, sings (very poignantly at one point) and, being female, at least does her own ironing. She is no fool, but has stalled helplessly since taking a music degree and fallen behind her ‘uni’ contemporaries, especially the more middle-class ones like “Elinor with an i – who is not only patronizing, but a nutritionist”.
She takes us through a day in which she wakes in the seedy shared Derby flat she shares with a pregnant friend, and bunks off work to meet a potential manager. He is looking for a rough-edged feminist vibe and assures her “menstruation is trending!” . It does not go well, not least because Jinny arrives in bike shorts with her helmet still on, interrupts the interview to take a call from her beloved Nan and therefore isn’t let back in, then runs off home in tears leaving her guitar, pausing only to assault a billboard for having smiley white teeth and being on the side of the shiny winners in life’s lottery. “What does she know? what do any of them know about us?”
There are witty echoes of the Osborne play: the posh resented friend, the sense of outsider status, the helpless angry fruitless inferiority when she encounters a receptionist “wearing those earrings people wear when they hit forty or work in an art gallery, she should be eating a scone or something”.

SImpkins, however, holds our sympathy and the playwright is cunning enough to throw doubt over her world-view . Early on Jinny relates how in her schooldays a friend, Tania, wanted to be a vet but was dissuaded by dull patronizing teachers: a standard educational trope of today: schools putting down ordinary folk’s ambitions, bah humbug. Yet in the last few minutes we casually learn that Tania is a vet now. So it’s about Jinny herself, not the cliché of a generation betrayed. Just as the Angry Young Men were never really Everyman. Just angry. And eloquent.
box office 01332 593939 to 26 March
rating four

4 Meece Rating

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BERYL Rose, Kingston



I suppose there must be some lazy, vacillating, unfocused Yorkshirewomen, but I’ve not met one yet.  And of that tribe of gritty, unselfpitying, fiercely down-to-earth females, few surpass the late Beryl Burton.
Beryl who? How dare we! It is a scandal that any of us need to ask. The final tableau in this intimate, larky, metatheatrical bio-play about the highest achieving of sportswomen sees the cast of four  surrounding her fallen racing bike with innumerable trophies – best British all-rounder 25 years running, world champion more than once, holder still (despite technological advances) of unbroken records including a 12 hour 277 mile marathon  in which she overtook the entire mens race …

On it goes.  And if you want more tough, underdog unsung credibility,  reflect that – women’s sport being a Cinderella and cycling in her day mostly a working class club sport – Beryl achieved most of it on shoestring and domestic sacrifice, supported by her faithful husband and soigneur Charlie. She had to cycle to competitions – Yorkshire to London, even – and achieved her early training by working as a labourer on a rhubarb farm (there is a fine educational digression abut the West Yorkshire rhubarb economy). One telling scene shows how – having missed the last train to the world championship at Leipzig – the couple daren’t have the hotel breakfast because their only money is Charlie’s last week’s wage. On being informed by the more appreciative Germans that there is nothing to pay because of her fame, Beryl and Charlie are too embarrassed to change their mind and have the breakfast after all. Very Alan Bennett, that. Less Bennettish is the fact that they’re only late because Beryl stopped off to defend her 100-mile title at home first.


This debut play by Maxine Peake for the West Yorkshire Playhouse toured last year and  frankly, the more often it pops up again the better.  Beryl’s story needs no embellishment – weak heart as a child, missed the 11-Plus through illness, emerged furiously determined to “make her mark” and ignore medical advice to avoid exertion. Here is ferocious ambition,  nerves overcome, family stress, injury, triumph after triumph, more injury. Great story, but it does need a lightness of touch: and Rebecca Gatward’s production achieves that in pared down playful style. Samantha Power plays the adult Beryl, Rebecca Ryan her youthful self and then her daughter (who in one race at last beat her, which didn’t go down well). Lee Toomes is an amiable Charlie, and others; Dominic Gately all the rest – mother-in-law, club trainer, assorted waiters, rivals, everything.  Four bikes on stands get vigorously pedalled against projected Yorkshire scenes and cheering crowds, manoeuvered and repaired: during the early part the actors slip out of character with good jokes (when Rebecca Ryan suddenly swaggers pelvically across the stage as a factory- hand the others puzzle “What’re you doing?” “I”m being a bloke!”. Artful, exiguous props cause jokes too, but wisely, as the play grips tighter, Gatward has them lay off that.

It’s hugely enjoyable, warm, credible, respectful for all the larking. But I hadn’t expected one private tearful moment: it came when, getting her MBE from the Queen (Gately again, in a tiara) Beryl turns and murmurs awestruck “She knew who I was, Charlie..”. A whole vista of working-class , secondary-modern, farm-labourer-housewife yearning pulsed in those words. This extraordinary athlete had to work punishingly, with furious dedication, to win that moment. In an age of instant celebrity it almost hurt.


box office 020 8174 0090 to 19 April
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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MOTOWN Shaftesbury Theatre, WC2



I expected a big splashy jukebox musical, a-glitter with tearful Broadway sentiment and popster pizzazz. And indeed the tale of Berry Gordy’s legendary Motown record label is told through fantastic tribute renderings of its back-catalogue, the soundtrack of dates and disasters from 1959 onwards. From the Four Tops and the Temptations – and the Commodores in their fabulously ridiculous trousers – to the Supremes and Jackson Five , it’s all there rendered at gale force twelve in innumerable changes of very shiny clothes (there are fifteen wardrobe and dresser jobs credited, and even so I can’t see how they manage). The choreography even catches with gloriously absurd precision those old-style Vegas moves: all acrobatic jerky unerotic knees-up , snake-hippery and synchronized pointing at the audience. Or, in really high emotion, the ceiling.

But rejoice! beyond the retro panache lies a thing of wit, dry intelligent self-knowledge. Berry Gordy himself wrote the book and put the show together with director Charles Randolph Wright. His groundbreaking black music label was – and remains – a serious dream from childhood, when he thrilled as all America – black and white – did, when the boxer Joe Louis beat the German Max Schmeling in 1938. Gordy, who started as a songwriter (“Reet Petite” lies at his door) cites that prewar moment as a seed of his ambition, and is justifiably proud of how Motown powered through in an age of discrimination. Just as in the splendid recent MEMPHIS, set ten years before Motown took off, we see a radio DJ refusing at first to play “race music” but having to capitulate to demand.

The joy of this show is that for all the celebration, Mr Gordy does not spare himself : he frames the show – with nicely hokey domestic flashbacks – in the moment of its 25th anniversary in 1983, when artists who had left the label for big money gathered to mark the day, and the miffed 55-year-old founder refused to go. Until, of course, in the final scene he repents. In between, big numbers and small fragments are brilliantly chosen ; the man who insisted ”a song must tell a story” does not spare himself embarrassments. There are small misjudgements, spats with a tricky Marvin Gaye (Sifiso Mazibuko), a lifelong bromance with Charl Brown’s irresistible Smokey Robinson, and the long affair with Diana Ross even including a first night when he fails to come up to scratch in bed. Not to mention her subsequent exasperation with his being keener to give her “notes” after her shows than to take her to dinner. Cedric Neal is a wonderful Berry Gordy, always at the centre of things, showing the conflict of a creative spirit who turned midwife and mentor, and suffered the inevitable blowback when his big stars outgrew the label and left it in trouble. But there is no self-pity: just wry satisfaction in having “led them along a path I didn’t know was there”

Neal himself sings like a dream, as do all the vast ensemble who become successive groups in dizzying sequence. Lucy St Louis is pure Diana Ross, both in melancholy Billie-Holiday vein and doing her big Vegas number “Reach Out and Touch” while drawing two front-row punters onto the stage steps and getting them, and us, to sing along (one was a solid Dundonian lady who did fine, the other a very bluesy chap in a purple hat). As for Michael Jackson’s moment – ah, so long before the craziness and lawsuits – out of a tiny 12-year-old emerges a huge sorrowful bluesy voice, startling the 1968 Gordy into spluttering that this infant seemed to have lived thirty years of heartbreak, and protesting that he ought rather to sing something “a kid might sing”. That number is a huge ask of any child, but they’ve found four boys to share the part, all British: who knew we could breed mini-Jacksons so readily?

It’s a piece of history. The quarter-century takes in Luther King (Gordy made albums of his speeches), Vietnam, Kennedy’s assassination: in one fabulously funny, telling 1960s scene Smokey sings in Alabama flanked by armed police with batons snarling “No mixing!” to the black and white audience. What he sings is “You really gotta hold on me”.
Nice. And I am proud to have been on my feet when, on the opening night, the cast brought on the real Berry Gordy, 86 years old, laughing and thanking London for being one of the first, in 1965, to welcome Motown’s tour. And then, amazingly, on came the real Smokey Robinson…
Oh how we whooped. Yes, it’s more than a jukebox show.


box office 020 7379 5399 to 22 Oct

RATING  five  5 Meece Rating

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THE CAUSE Jermyn St Theatre, WC1



World War I and its aftermath are being well served by theatre (my last year’s reflections, But Jeremy James’ play is the first I have encountered which concerns itself with its beginnings. It builds up to the 1914 trigger moment, when the Serb assassin Gavrilo Princip shot dead the Archduke Franz Ferdinand (and his wife) on their visit to Sarajevo.

The Archduke was heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which sprawled over half of Europe. The friction with the other great power bloc – France, Britain, Russia – and the complex disagreements in the Balkan countries led to a diplomatic crisis and then to war. Historians still wrestle with the disastrous, unnecessary immense outcome. But this play runs up to the actual assassination, dealing with two separate “causes” and two sets of conspirators. Andrew Shepherd’s production for ACS Ransom emerges as both fascinating and frustrating.


Jeremy James frames it with a 1964 moment as an old Hungarian artist – Tony Wredden patriarchally folksy as Sandor – suffers a stroke. Angela Dixon as his great-niece Margit, a flat-toned prosy psychotherapist and hypno-therapist, leads him to recover his darkest memories. So the centre of the stage is a bold, colourfully realized bohemian artists’ studio where young Sandor (Jesse de Coste, in an intense, charismatic professional debut) meets Tibor (Rbert Wilde) and young Medve, who is a girl cross-dressed as a boy to keep her artistic freedom. Emma Mulkern, in another good West End debut, plays Medve young, sweet, and eventually lovelorn and disastrous.

They are Hungarian patriots , and decide to travel to Sarajevo to assassinate the Archduke and free their country from the Austrian yoke. Meanwhile, however, a quite separate plot is brewing (the one which eventually gets the job done) as Alexander Nash as a sinister Colonel recruits Mark Joseph’s Major Tankosik to the Black Hand, a Serbian nationalist group. They want the Slav provinces freed to become a greater Yugoslavia.

The two groups of plotters could hardly be more different in tone. The artists centrestage, puppyish and idealistic, argue about Kandinsky and Klimt in between setting up an inefficient gun deal and missing Archduke-shaped targets in the garden of their lodgings. In the darker corner, the Black Hand duo grow ever more Blackadderish, with Nash as the leader ramping up sinister threats about poisoned coffee and drowning hostile editors in their own barrels of ink; while a flustered Tankosik forever reports disasters caused by his six highly inefficient assassins (the final successful shot, it seems, was by chance because the cortege moved backwards and Princip was in the wrong place, having sloped off for a quick coffee). So that’s all quite funny, with lines like “The cows must not come home to roost!”. Meanwhile the artist Medve, aka Sofja, has cold feet and is tempted to betray the other artists; the two sets of plotters clash, despite their common interest, and the idealists come to disaster.


Oddly, there’s no problem with having a widely different tone in the two plots, one farcical- but-successful and the other honest and tragic. It keeps you watching: sweet-sour, a reflection on futility which carries you forward into thinking about the futility of the whole Great War. For a début playwright, it’s a daring experiment and a good one.



But the awful flaw is the framing: the terrible plonking psycho-jargon given to Margit in the 1964 sections – she proses on about even the traitor artist suffering “obsessive compulsion”, and atrociously concludes after the key tragic memory emerges that she and the old artist would “work through it” . Just as if he was some 21c crybaby with self-esteem issues. It is all the more jarring, because the dénouement of the young Hungarian conspirators’ story actually is strong and moving when the remembered events are brought before us. :We really don’t need the clunking reassurance that old Sandor will resolve his “issues”. Come off it: theatre is its own catharsis – it is pity, terror, empathy, silent private reflection. Cut the frame off and this picture would glow brighter.
box office 020 7287 2875 to 26 march

rating three   3 Meece Rating

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The Jean Anouilh plays I devoured as a neurotic sixth-former always had Antigone, Joan of Arc or Thomas a Becket heroically refusing compromise and salvation in the name of moral integrity. Ideal for a furious convent girl. I did not know his first big hit – the 1937 Le Voyageur Sans Bagages, which takes on a classic impostor-adoption theme (these were big in both sets of postwar years: think of Tey’s Brat Farrar, du Maurier’s The Scapegoat).


Here, a WW1 soldier with total memory loss after years of captivity is told he belongs in an aristocratic family. But on learning about the bad character and awful deeds of the lost son, he can’t reconcile it with the principles of honesty and kindness his amnesiac self embraces, and manages to fake his way out of it into a poorer but honest family. Therefore, this being early 20c French drama, one might gratifyingly go in deep about identity, morality, and the existential question “Who am I?”.

But let’s not bother. This is a new version by Anthony Weigh, set in a 1950’s, Eisenhower-y, Cold War I-Love-Lucy world, and I would much rather tell you about the wigs. Instead of Anouilh’s lawyer here the introducer of “Gene” to the posh Fox family on Long Island is Katherine Kingsley, having a riot of a time as “Mrs Marcee Dupont-Dufort” in a Lucille Ball barnet in hellfire red, cawing and writhing and yearning up the social ladder via fine parvenue malapropisms to the fury of her grouchy-Groucho husband De Wit (Danny Webb, splendid). Then in a rigid Marcel-waved perm wig we have Sian Thomas as the clipped and drawling Mrs Fox, having just as much fun with it in a more tight-gusseted way; and the sexually thwarted daughter-in-law Valerie Fenella Woolgar gets in a ‘fifties flick-up mullet and nasty attitude. When Marcee asks with electric-log warmth “What else is family for?” it is Valerie who replies “Target practice?”.


The men don’t get wigs, but Barnaby Kay makes an impressive transition from sullen lump son George to speaking with sudden humane reality the play’s most significant line in Act 2. Rory Keenan, initially underplayed as calmly baffled, catches fire and panics once he realizes that if he is indeed Jack Fox, he was an utter bastard. The family, to ‘remind’ him, surround him with fearful stuffed animals he used to kill obsessively. It’s certainly the first elk I have seen on the Donmar stage, and multiple taxidermy foxes, fawn, fowls, and a rather sinister raccoon (or badger? bit wonky, that one) appear after the interval. Gene panics but George, in that one important line, pleads “Do yourself a favour. Forget him. He was just a kid”.
Gene does better, thanks to an invasion of twenty other families trying to claim him, and a possibly semi-symbolic small boy emerging from a mirrored armoire with news that M.Anouilh has suddenly realized that he has to end this damn play somehow. Mr Weigh is thus enabled to bring back the peerless Katherine Kingsley with her wig even wilder, and throw more 1950’s American class-war jokes. Oh, and there’s a memorable monologue, delivered with thwarted fury by Danny Webb’s de Wit Dupont-Dufort, which may well make a lot of wives hope it isn’t the night to take the bins out. Enough said.


So it’ s reasonable fun, a lark, a bit of a cartoon kept romping along (apart from a few slow scenes) by director Blanche McIntyre. And there’s a teeny retro aeroplane to look forward to if you pay attention . Which you can, because the wig-wearers have gone offstage by then, leaving just an impassive, impressive , and mercifully hairless Trevor Laird as the butler.
box office 0844 871 7624 to 16 APRIL
Supported by the John Browne Charitable Trust and season supporter Arielle Tepper Madover

Rating three.    3 Meece Rating


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