Monthly Archives: May 2016

A SUBJECT OF SCANDAL AND CONCERN Finborough, SW10

THE LAST BLASPHEMY TRIAL..AND ECHOES FOR TODAY

 
It is a thousand pities that John Osborne is predominantly famous for the spitting spoilt-brat misogyny of Jimmy Porter in Look Back In Anger (lately revived – http://tinyurl.com/gwrc7gl – to prove interesting but still nasty). Just about everything else Osborne wrote is better: notably LUTHER,  to which this hour-long evocation is closely related.  It deals with England’s last blasphemy trial , in 1842, and is studded with lines so ringingly topical in this age of “hate speech” law and “Prevent” rules that I would beg young lawyers – and dear God, lawmakers – to have them up on the wall – “I am under no contract to think as you do” says the victim, and ”What is the morality of a law which prohibits the free publication of an opinion?”. And “There is no magic in words, neither yours nor mine”.

 

 

Holyoake, a young schoolmaster of social-reformist views, walks between Bristol and Cheltenham, dusty, poor, prone to stammer, physically unimpressive. He delivers lectures in Mechanics’ Institutes and the like. So in Cheltenham one evening, after discoursing on the the national debt as a millstone on the poorest and on the disproportionate public money spent on clergy and churches, he is asked about our ‘duty to God” . He replies that he doesn’t believe in a deity, and if he did would put him on half-pay like soldiers “in our present distress”.

 

 

 
Down comes the establishment fist, prompted by a local newspaper (come on Cheltenham Festival – buy this play for the Lit Fest! I dare you!). His trial and imprisonment, lice and humiliation and barracking by sententious clergy follow. The rhetoric is tremendous: some from the prosecutors – socialism as “diabolism”, much about the perils of “disorder and confusion” and “wicked and advised bringing to disrepute” of religion among the people. From him there is still more, with the humanist affirmation that morality comes from mankind, not “2000 years of church”

 

 

 

Jamie Muscato gives Holyoake – intense, starveling, stubborn – his reported stammer, and in a fine performance holds it brilliantly just this side of intrusiveness, indeed using it to intensify the man’s fanatical, near- hysterical need to speak his truth at all costs. And there are costs. The hour begins and ends – crushingly – with the personal fallout of the activist’s stubborn determination.  We had met him first visiting his wife, who he boarded out with her sister’s richer family who despise him, and are not looking after her or his infant daughter at all well.  In the last prison scene she visits him to relate the child’s funeral, which he has insisted takes place priestless, with only a beadle and no “tinsel and angels” or “prayer and parade”. What this angry austerity, a prayerless farewell to her child, has cost the mother is evoked by Caroline Moroney with spare,frozen misery – “You may have your opinions, George, but I know now. This was not a manly thing to have done, and I can’t thank you for it”. Devastating.

 

 

 

In a play necessarily static and wordy, Jimmy Walters’ direction and Philip Lindley’s ingenious design create physical energy by setting it transverse and having the cast of six, in a sort of ballet of the benches, stylistically moving ingenious plain wooden barred platforms around to become a home, courtroom, meeting-house or jail. It works brilliantly, evoking a sense of a world whose every aspect conspires against poor Holyoake. And against the freedom of expressed religious opinion which we still have to defend today.
box office 0844 847 1652 finboroughtheatre.co.uk to 7 June
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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ROMEO AND JULIET Garrick WC2

GUEST REVIEWER LUKE JONES SLUMPS IN DISAPPOINTMENT

 

 
Kenneth Branagh’s entire season has been built on one universal truth. From star to stage-sweeper, pack the production with the best talent and glorious things will inevitably follow. Why then, has that same formula now stumbled?I couldn’t have been more predisposed to liking this production, the cast or it’s director. But Branagh’s sweatily Italian and disastrously unfunny production is such a disappointment.

 

 

The scene looks like a Dolce and Gabbana advert. Cafe chairs are forever being put out and stacked away. Characters shimmy in, espresso in hand. And when the director can’t use the text at hand for whatever extra-curricular contrivance he has up his sleeve, they all start shouting in Italian.

 

 

It is these contrivances which are the fundamental flaw. Everything is played for laughs. With Meera Syal’s nurse (one of the better parts of the production) this sits fine. She jogs in, jogs out, lights a fag, winks and collapses. Lovely. But when Richard Madden’s maddening Romeo and Lily James’ flat Juliet start comedy-swigging from bottles and hamming up lines in the balcony scene you realise it’s gone too far. Too far, Ken.

 

 

It almost seems unfair to blame the cast. A lightening-fast pace is set in the first few moments and they’re all left panting to keep up. The protagonists are fine, but lack any kind of chemistry. Other than some panicked kissing, no moments of intimacy are allowed. There is no sex or fire behind anything. Just an eye on the clock and a mind on dinner.

 

 

The parents, Tybalt, and Paris are (to be fair like in most productions) quite forgettable, but Derek Jacobi’s shamelessly camp (and mysteriously old) Mercutio is light relief and one of the few moments where the incredibly camp production makes sense. This is weighed out by a Friar in his 20’s who only speaks sitcom.

 

 

But I can forgive the cast. They are cut adrift and lost in pointless songs and infuriating background mood music. Every inch has the director’s paws all over it. I never thought I would write the phrase this Romeo and Juliet has too much lounge jazz.The shame is that Richard Madden and Lily James probably have a brilliant Romeo and Juliet in them. Something fiery and youthful. Perhaps in a production which allowed silences and pauses. I have no idea why that production isn’t this one. But seems incredibly un-Kenneth Branagh like to try and whizz through the poetry to dig up a gag.

 

2 MICE
Until 13th August.
Box Office 0330 333 4811

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A VIEW FROM ISLINGTON NORTH Arts, WC2

POLITICS. AS WE KNOW IT. O DEAR. 

 

 
Here’s a sharp one, beautifully suited to what is not only a Referendum season but one in which both main political parties are more than likely to do mischief to their leaders. We can’t rely only on nervous broadcasters and weary quiz-teams for performed political satire, so hats off to the Arts: whose historic shabbiness pleasingly channels a nicely threadbare Corbyn vibe.
 

 

Max Stafford-Clark and Out of Joint simply present five playlets designed to prod political sores . Three have been seen before, though not lately or freestanding, and there are two new pieces from Alistair Beaton and David Hare. Oh, and a short final ditty written by Billy Bragg.

 

 

One might have feared, especially after Stella Feehily and Max Stafford-Clark’s less well-judged NHS play THIS MAY HURT A BIT (http://tinyurl.com/j6y9huh) a festival of tired leftie indignation. All Brigstockey and Jeremy-Hardyoid, like a bad Friday at 630 on Radio 4. But it’s cleverer than that, acidly theatrical. Mark Ravenhill’s opener, The Mother, has a shocking, storming virtuoso perrormance from Sarah Alexander (Kathryn O”Reilly takes over the part from the 6th). She is an unemployed, 45-year-old woman on valium and benefits. Two soldiers – a young private and a middle-aged female Major – knock on her door, but can’t get a word in as she swears , chatters, offers breakfast and bats away all attempts at their “Mrs Morrison…” openers. It becomes clear that she knows they will be there about her son. All mothers of squaddies in recent wars know how bad news comes: she just doesn’t want to hear the words. At first very funny it becomes troubling, briefly violent, suddenly deeply touching, finally oddly dignified. It makes your hair stand on end , evoking class, parenthood, military decency and the indecency of war. It was canny to start with something deeper than cynicism.

 

 

 
Next comes a short, selfconsciously clever Caryl Churchill two-hander in which a young couple have a brief domestic exchange, then repeat it several times with the same intonation but the banal phrases replaced with jargon, slogan-speak and political and commercial clichés. Smart, briefly diverting, a sort of sorbet before the next course. Which is a classic, wicked new number by Alistair Beaton set in the present Labour Party (names rejigged) as Bruce Alexander as a rightish backbencher lurks in a pub backroom orchestrating choreographed resignations, fending off calls from “Laura” at the BBC, excoriating the “Impetus” Corbynistas and failing to plug leaks, one wittily caused by Tinder.

 

 

 

It is horribly funny, tight and credible: but with something suitably yearning about the final acceptance that, the coup foiled, the future of Labour is chaos – but “Chaos with hope!”.

 

 
Only fair, then, for David Hare – in the other new piece – to be within the Tory party, with an imaginary discussion between “Gideon” (you know who) and the Russian-American prophetess of capitalist freedom, Ayn Rand. If free-market theory tends to make you tune out, don’t. Ann Mitchell’s Ayn is a treat: a masterpiece of stoutly sinuous seductiveness, her black frock making her half mamba half Mamma as Steve John Shepherd’s nervous Osborne struggles with internal conflict: conservative control-freakery versus conservative capitalism. Jane Wymark joins in as an unfairly caricatured – but very entertaining – Theresa May, to underline the absurdities of defending British values of tolerance by not tolerating “hate-speech”; she is borne down by the terrifying Rand over immigration.

 

 
And finally, one more squib about party management, Stella Feehily’s sharp little portrait of a Tory Whips’ office grinding down an MP for not reporting a colleague’s groping. When he learns who his replacement is, he squeaks “But she’s Asian! it’s Bury St Edmunds!”. Lovely. So it all hangs together nicely, not world-changing but not smothering either. Just weaving, casually in under two hours, a taut skein of light cynicism with glitters of important ideas. We need one of these every few months or so.

 

 

box office http://www.artstheatrewestend.co.uk / 020 7836 8463 to 2 July. ANd there are midweek matinees.

rating four 
   4 Meece Rating

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FLOWERS FOR MRS HARRIS Crucible, Sheffield

A HEART FOR BEAUTY,  A ‘FIFTIES DREAM

 

 

If Daniel Evans means to leave his acclaimed stewardship of Sheffield Theatre on a flood of tears, he’s chosen the right production for his directorial finale. There were definitely Kleenexes involved. Paul Gallico’s novella was an outlet for a bruised postwar nation, yearning over its clothes-ration coupons for the “ideal of civilized happiness” epitomized by the extravagant ballgowns of the New Look. A widowed charlady is content with her humble lot until she sees, in a rich client’s wardrobe, the marvel that is a Dior dress. She yearns to own one – “to come home to, not to wear”. Inspired by a small pools win, she trebles it with years of slaving, scrimping and squirrelling, and travels naive but determined to Paris.

 

 
Where – like the poor-but-honest heroine of a fairytale – she wins all hearts, comforts the also-widowed vendeuse and solves a brittle romantic impasse (fairytale again: top model and shy accountant = Princess and swineherd). Having known the book in childhood I feared a saccharine tone in this premiere from Richard Taylor (music and lyrics) and Rachel Wagstaff . Gallico is an unfashionably brutal plucker of heartstrings, and his “Mrs ‘Arris” sequels are best avoided. Evans, however, steers a canny course: the most notable evidence of this being that Gallico’s Battersea char heroine is patronizingly given heavy Cockney ‘aitches and a “naughty twinkle” in her plebeian eye. Whereas Clare Burt, in this production, emanates credible dignity and palpable sense as well as her yearning. Roll on a few years and she would be one of the ‘60s working-class heroines leading council revolts in sink estates. Her Passchendaele widowhood hits home, touchingly evoked in conversations with the dead husband, who wanders around as a ghost advising her on her pools boxes. And comedy is never far off; Anna-Jane Casey is a right caution as her friend Violet, and so is the revolving ring of demanding clients: naughty major, eccentric Russian emigrée, selfish soubrette, accountant dreaming of being a photographer.

 

 

 

There’s a lively energy from the start: the score, never particularly interesting or catchy, gives point and vigour to patter lyrics (some of which I would have liked to hear better). The scrimping has unnerving pathos: who, today, saves as the ‘50s women did? And there is a moment of real truthful seriousness when Ida Harris sees the client’s (invisible) Dior dress , alone under a spotlight, confronting high art with “It’s like I’ve found a piece of me”. Burt evokes a hunger for beauty which throbs across the still-grey stage, and shines on from beneath her threadbare cardigan even when she gets to snooty, incomprehensible, unwelcoming Paris. So before long even they must speak democracy: “If something is beautiful, it’s beautiful for anyone, no matter who you are”. A proper echo from the founding days of the Arts Council…

 

 

 
Paris is a riot: rose-pink and dramatic, with a dazzling procession of eight Dior New Look dresses: silk and tulle, petals upon petals, crystals on crystals, worn with hauteur by immaculate girls with tiny waists and proper hips. A dream of serene perfection, Lez Brotherston’s designs channel Dior beautifully and are ,I suspect, being eyed up gloatingly by every female on the crew. Mark Meadows is a glorious Chevalier-esque Marquis, naturally doubling as the husband’s earlier ghost; Laura Pitt-Pulford transforms from the ghastly soubrette to an enchanting Parisienne model , with Louis Maskell geekishly adoring as André. And – no spoilers for non-readers – the dénouement is seriously floral.

 

 

 
So me, I loved it. And note that it needs a good provincial producing-theatre to have the nerve to do this with so much style: a middle-aged charlady heroine in a brown cardi and faded print, a story dominated by women, an untried musical of an unfashionable ‘50s book, and no megastars… But it works. I have the soggy Kleenex to prove it.

 
box office 0114 249 6000 to 4 June
rating four    4 Meece Rating

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BLUE/ORANGE Young Vic SE1

GUEST CRITIC LUKE JONES  ON THE MENTAL  WARD...

 

 
You’re clinically paranoid, you’re black and you’re bombarded on a daily basis with racism and when presented with an orange, you see the colour blue. You’re then sectioned. But within a month your doctor and his supervising consultant are at war. One thinks you must stay for increased treatment, the other sees you as the victim of an ethnicity-obsessed health service. They bitch, they confide in you, they criticise eachother’s methods openly.

Quite the farce.

 

 

Joe Penhall’s play, first seen at the Cottesloe in 2000, is sharp and hilarious. It toys intelligently with the interplay between race and mental health care. It mines decent conflict in places I’d not heard before. But it lacks conviction.The patient is Christopher (Daniel Kaluuya), jibbering and gesticulating just as you’d want him to be. A punchy performance, despite a part erring on the slim side. Is this a mad house he’s trapped in by malignant forces, or is it vital help he desperately needs? Should he leave or remain? (Insert EU joke here).

 

 

But as he paces the waiting room, his psychiatrist Bruce (Luke Norris) and his supervising consultant (David Haig) are left to play. Is his race an unwelcome factor in his treatment, should the lack of beds on the ward be taken into account, is he “just like that” and not a concern for the NHS?Jeremy Herbert’s set is a small consulting room the size of a boxing ring sat atop another room we never see, except when walking to our seats. That doesn’t make sense because it really doesn’t. The director Matthew Xia neatly packs the squabbles in here. Tort performances in a tight space.

But Luke Norris overshoots on the concerned, caring doctor. The troubled professional wrestling with obstruction from the authorities and his hippocratic duty. His performance is a frustrating one; seemingly entirely gesture driven. A series of aghast poses and quizzical expressions.

His opposition is the most fullsome character walking on the stage. Despite a hefty part of me dying whenever any character’s motivation is “to finish writing my book”, David Haig’s consultant is a charismatic manipulator and comic joy.

 

 

 

Penhall’s play uses these two to nicely wrestle with the constructed argument. He expertly disrupts our expectations and shifts our allegiances which each revelation from the patient. But it only ever chews. It doesn’t finish the job. I never felt the jeopardy the patient was in. I didn’t rage with the psychiatrist, and the consultant’s tyranny didn’t terrify me. It’s the intelligence and humour of the argument which makes it thoroughly watchable.

 

 

 

But you’re only ever nodding along as if reading an incredibly lively opinion piece in The Times. But in the end, you put the paper down, you leave the theatre; informed, but not moved.
3 mice   3 Meece Rating
Until 2nd July.
Box Office 020 7922 2922

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KING JOHN Rose, Kingston

A BAD KING, A PROBLEM PLAY,  BUT A GREAT EVENING

 

Of Shakespeare’s plays this is one of the least done and loved: there’s disputed authorship of some sections, parts of the plot missing and replaced from another text. Sir Trevor Nunn takes it on as the penultimate achievement in his intention to direct all 37 plays: I was agog, since I missed the Globe’s  version (part of the Magna Carta anniversary, though oddly the play ignores that milestone in the life of “England’s worst king”). I especially needed to expunge the memory of an ill-advisedly whimsical RSC version – a sort of Timmy Mallett lark, the warlike Fauconbridge transgendered and giggling in harlequin tights with balloons and a ukelele, and one vital character omitted.  I had wondered whether the play itself was so terrible that it needed this burlesquery.  Turns out, it doesn’t , not at all. I was engrossed for three hours.

 

 

Sir Trevor takes it without gimmicks, and with all the fleur-de-lys and crowns and .girdles the most medievally minded could want , and delivers a pacy, suspenseful, admirably clear and wholly entertaining rendering. Of all the ‘histories’ it is the most intimate and familially tangled: a sort of poisonous proto-Dynasty chronicle of tribal rows. Political too, of course: the cardinal legate Pandulph, a spiritedly bossy and comically affrontable Burt Caesar, reminds us that Boris Johnson  missed a trick in citing only Napoleon and Hitler as  ambitious for pan- European domination. Medieval Popes put in a pretty good bid for the obedience of political “Christendom”. Some of the biggest sighs of sympathy met both King John’s defiance that “no Italian priest shall tether or toll” England; and there’s another one later when John recants, and the French Dauphin irritably refuses to be told to stop the war he was previously told to start.

 

 

 

But in the first half it is the family rows which keep things rolling along. The women’s roles and ferocious tirades are reminiscent of Richard III, but more intemperate. Richard the Lionheart is dead; his mother, Maggie Steed’s old Queen Elinor, interferingly matriarchal as she pronounces John king. Even she is drowned by Lisa Dillon as the furious Lady Constance, widow of the eldest brother and mother of the small, sweetly embarrassed Prince Arthur, who from the start seems well aware that his mother’s pursuit of his cause will lead to no good. Even John’s niece Blanche (Elisabeth Hopper) , negotiated bride of the Dauphin, gets her moment of fury when she roars “On my wedding day?” as he fragile peace collapses thanks to Pandulph, and the war (indicated, unfussily, on overhead screens) heats up again.

 

 

 
It is played with immense vigour (sometimes at first perhaps a shade too much from the illegitimate, warlike Faulconbridge (Howard Charles) as he rants through his dense soliloquies. John himself is Jamie Ballard, with a fine dissipated rock-star arrogance in his face: sullen, chilly and petulant, with flashes of rage from the start, and wonderful sulky reaction-faces during the more intemperate family scenes and episcopal lectures. He becomes genuinely chilling in his quiet “I have a thing to say…” briefing to Hubert to put the child’s eyes out and kill him. When he is finally disintegrating, weepily contemptible in his frightened remorse and at last his death “shameful my life, and shamefully it ends” he is pitiable, human, lost. That Shakespearian moment of truth amid the politics silences the room.

 

 

 

Howard Charles as the Bastard , hard-man and warrior cynic, is powerful, Dominic Mafham as Salisbury impressive. But among that strong cast particular laurels go to Stephen Kennedy for a deep-layered, moving performance as Hubert the loyal reluctant murderer, and to his charge Arthur. The boy’s part is shared, but on the night I went it was a stellar, unaffected, taking, brave performance by young Harry Marcus. When he pleads, gallantly and scornfully, against Hubert’s hot irons he is mesmerizing: his death at the castle wall is the poignant heart of the play. Terrific.

 
Box office 020 8174 0090 to 5 June
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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THE INVISIBLE HAND Tricycle NW6

A CAUTIONARY TALE OF TRADE AND TERROR

 

 

It is the modern terror that stalks our interconnected world. You’re shut in a stone cell, alone and far from home, and in a chaotic increasingly lawless land, rife with political and tribal rivalries. So your captors themselves are unpredictable: captives in their turn of ideologies, corrupt government, poverty and a daily jolting adrenalin fear. Unreasoning murders like that of Daniel Pearl, haunt every family whose members travel to work in, report on, or help a developing country.

 

 

Ayad Akhtar, a Pulitzer prizewinner, distils this in a play tense, sour and funny, with at its core a nugget of inescapable and dispiriting truth. Not about politics, or even East-West ideological divisons and harsh history: but about human beings and money. Indhu Rubasingham’s last home fixture before her enterprising Trike spends a year in refurbishment is as clever, as political, and in its last ironic moments as barkingly, darkly, shockingly funny as so much else has been under this director.

 

 
Nick Bright (Daniel Lapaine) is a bright American trading banker, kidnapped largely in error by a Pakistani cell led by the stout, selfrighteous Imam Saleem (Tony Jayawardena, considerably less lovable than in Bend it Like Beckham). We see Nick first in amiable conversation with the lowly jailer Dar, advising him on his cousin’s potato trade and on always turning his rupees into dollars. “More stable”. The nervier, more dangerous jihadi-minded Bashir is Western-educated, following Saleem, and kicks Dar for dealing with the evil world of banks and interest. But Nick is bargaining for his life, and for not being handed over to the real extremists (who Saleem’s lot hate even more than they hate the national government). So he points out that he could help their finances and earn the $10m ransom they want by lending his skills: showing them how to play the markets online, buying and selling and shorting.

 

 
So he and Bashir – Parth Thakerar, unnerving as any angry teenager in his striding, twitching, and ranting anti-Western tirades – are set to do this. Nick may not touch the laptop, and some sharp comic moments occur as – temporarily out of his handcuffs – he frustratedly teaches Bashir to navigate all the windows and make fast bids and sales.

 

 

 
In a series of short scenes broken by blinding lights in our eyes as new groupings form in the cell we witness progress, setbacks, and the growing unease about Saleem’s withdrawals from the trading fund. We witness too some debates about the moralities of global trade – Nick standing up for America and the IMF, Bashir and Saleem cursing it all – and the prisoner’s homesick anxious desperation, and scratching escape attempts.
But most of all we watch something familiar from films like The Big Short and Wall Street: the utterly addictive nature of stock market gambling. Bashir gets too good at it, too committed. And the cell is falling apart. The play darkens as events conspire and this future Pakistan moves towards revolution, and Lapaine’s ever more heavily shackled misery becomes rightly uncomfortable to watch.
But Akhtar has a proper, twisted final scene, which is met with a bark of shocked laughter. And a backwash of realization that human nature being what it is, it was bound to happen that way. Big money on its own is dangerous enough: add resentful, youthful male energy and up goes the powder-keg. Smart, sour, salutary.
box office 020 7328 1000 http://www.tricycle.co.uk to 6 July
rating Four 4 Meece Rating

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