Monthly Archives: March 2016

HOW THE OTHER HALF LOVES Theatre Royal, Haymarket SW1

THE CLASSIC COMEDY OF CLASS AND CONFUSION  

 

 

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 http://www.trh.co.uk to 25 June

RATING five   5 Meece Rating

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RIGHT NOW Bush, W12

A CREEPY BRILLIANCE  FROM QUEBEC

 
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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SHADOWLANDS Touring

HEAD, HEART, AND HOPEFULNESS

 
“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 http://www.shadowlandstour.com      5 Meece Rating
Rating: five

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REASONS TO BE HAPPY Hampstead Theatre, NW3

REASONS TO BE UNREASONABLE…

 
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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THE PAINKILLER Garrick, SW1

BRANAGH AND BRYDON GO BANG

 

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 http://www.nimaxtheatres.com to 30 April
rating four 4 Meece Rating

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THE TRUTH Menier, SE1

THE TRUTH GAME. OR NOT. 
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

NOTAHIT

 

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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