Monthly Archives: June 2016




A veil of rain surrounds the stage where three narrators will appear, each with their own version of a shared life “shabby, bleak, derelict” . Yet, in Brian Friel’s eloquent profound vision, it is a life as heartshaking and important. Frank Hardy is an itinerant faith healer, huckster and mountebank working the Celtic fringes; the others his robust old-school vaudeville manager Teddy, and his mistress Grace, who ran away with him despite her father’s fulmination about “chicanery”.



And it is chicanery, mostly: except for the rare strange moments when something happens, and a miracle happens. Or ten miracles, on one never-forgotten night in a Welsh meeting-house. Otherwise, unrolling leisurely but gripping before us, there is an account of the bickering, broke roadside life in the shabby van, a career without breakthrough or redemption leavened by gleams of humour, even glory.




The form of the play was startlingly new in 1979: four monologues, the first and last from Frank himself, these sandwiched, amplifying or clear his mistress, wife (or widow?) and Teddy the manager. Each, as in life, misreports the other and the three central events: one a triumph in Wales, one a squalid tragedy in northern Scotland, one a terrible consummation in Ballybeg. Between them these three weave an account of their intertwined lives which becomes a meditation on charisma, spiritual yearning, flawed, thwarted or exuberant love.




Stephen Dillane is Frank, low-key, sardonic and troubled, half-philosopher half-drunkard, confused by his unreliable gift. Gina McKee is Grace, who we meet in the aftermath of a trauma we only slowly discover, talking of a love which “obliterated me, me who tended him, fed him, debauched myself..”. She tells of a child’s grave; but it is, startlingly, only the seemingly cynical Teddy who tells us that tale in shattering immediacy. Yet that comes only on the far side of an account of his life and philosophy of showbiz management which brings unexpected, almost shocking gales of laughter after the sombreness of the first half. Few comedy writers could have invented the saga of Rob Roy the bagpiping whippet; and I cannot imagine anyone better to create Friel’s Teddy onstage than Ron Cook. Dapperly rundown in a bowtie, Cook delivers a quite brilliant forty-minute monologue, taking us from rollicking cynicism about his travails with Frank (reckons he should have stuck to “something nice and easy like a whistling dolphin”), all the way to a painful, briskly understated sensitivity. When he lays out the harshness of Kinlochbervie and hints at the dark terrible Ballybeg moment, the house holds its breath. And then Dillane’s Frank is back: still with one unforgivable lie , but ascending to a strange sad dignity in his own grim redemption.



Lyndsey Turner’s cast cannot be bettered; the veil of rain and sparse props of Es Devlin’s design suggest just enough, never too much. It will haunt me for days and weeks.
Box office 0844 871 7624 to 20 August
Principal Sponsor: Barclays
rating five  5 Meece Rating


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THE TRUTH Wyndham’s, WC2



The Menier, back in spring, brought grave delight and snorts of laughter with this zinger of a play by Florian Zeller; its rapid transfer up West is more than well deserved. My earlier review is here – but it was irresistible to see whether an elegant, chamber four-hander at 90 sharp minutes ,which convulsed the small theatre, would transfer to the pomposities of the West End.




And it absolutely does. It makes many other plays feel overwritten and laboured: Lindsay Posner’s cast, now well dug in, present a masterclass: a string-quartet, a fugue of misunderstanding, confusion, falsification, obfuscation, attempted diversion and – in the case of the glorious central adulterer, Alexander Hanson’s Michel, a mounting hilarity of male outrage. His cry near the end, wanting to know “what sort of play we’re in, comedy or tragedy?”, is a question for us as well as the blustering deceived-deceiver and his deadpan best-friend and cuckold, Paul.




Zeller’s fascination with identity, confused reality, audience manipulation and the way emotional rugs slip unexpectedly from under our feet brought us the soberer THE FATHER and THE MOTHER in London recently. Here, he takes the traditional adultery farce firmly from the hairy old hands of the Feydeau generation, sharpens it unrecognizably, and overlays it with his existential preoccupations and spikes of real pain. The two men – Hanson and Robert Portal (Paul) – have on this second viewing grown to a particular brilliance in their big confrontation, when none of us can be sure whether Paul is brilliantly acting or genuinely angry, shocked, vengeful or just manipulative; Hanson here, a cornered buffalo, finds his very limbs hardly obeying him as layer after layer of potential truth hits him.



Frances O’Connor as Alice has a sexual sophisticate’s smoothness overlaying shafts of uncertainty and guilt; Tanya Franks as the other wife a deadpan chic cool, which gives way shockingly in the final moments to a remarkable piece of silent intense facial acting. They all, to some extent, lie; are all to some extent deceived. It zings, it turns on a sixpence, confuses, delights, prods pretensions. It has no mercy but a headshaking compassion. Brilliant.




box office 0844 482 5120 to
rating: still five…5 Meece Rating

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WE DIDN’T MEAN TO GO TO SEA Hush House, Bentwaters




Eastern Angles having a cleaner mind than BBC Films, Titty gets to keeps her name in this faithful, ingenious, charming and oddly moving re-telling of Arthur Ransome’s best sailing book. Best, because while the others are fine chronicles of childlike playfulness and imagination this one places the four siblings – John, Susan, Titty and Roger – in genuine and unforeseen danger, at ages presumed to be from 14 down to about 9. There is a seriousness about it; and because of that what Ransome calls, as John steers alone “a serious kind of joy”.



Crewing overnight on the Orwell and Stour for young Jim on his little yacht Goblin, they are briefly left alone but when an accident stops the skipper returning, the anchor drags in the rising tide and is lost, and the ebb sweeps them out to sea. Decisions, based on Lakeland dinghy experience and conversations with a naval father, have to be made. The safest course, much debated between the alarmed elder siblings, is to stay out at sea, sailing a safe course downwind. They reach Holland. Ransome’s detail and seafaring probabilities in are impeccable: the only dissent came from the young woman alongside me in the interval with an indignant “Who would leave children alone on a boat?!”. I explained that was the 30’s, and that her generation raised in cottonwool were never briskly told like the book’s characters “Better drowned than duffers, if not duffers won’t drown”.


Whether you know the book or not this reprise of the Angles’ acclaimed version under Ivan Cutting is a delight: an ingenious compact set by Rosie Alabaster evokes the little boat perfectly, above and below decks, with clear sightlines both sides. It is framed as a re-telling by the romantic among them, Titty: the four cast briefly stand in for the parents, JIm and the Dutch pilot when necessary, Rosalind Steele’s Susan is very fine as the naval Dad at times, and Joel Sams’ John does a nice, boyish caricature of Mother. Matilda Howe is touchingly dreamy as Titty, and Christopher Buckley on his first professional job is a name to watch in future: he stands in as the rustic skipper Jim Brading but mainly is hilarious as Roger (well, he gets the one-liners a small brother always deploys at the wrong moment) . All four as children carry the wavering emotions perfectly – fun, fear, quarrels, elations, sudden achieving of near-adulthood, and scratchy family solidity.



But to be honest, what brought tears to my eyes at times was the way that the story, and the fidelity of the play, reflect the realities of small-boat sailing familiar to those of us with a life of it astern of us (and I hope a bit more to come).



All the truths are there: the pleasure in merely coiling a rope and the legacy of ingenuity in rigging and canvas and the simple subtle physics of the seaman’s art.   But there is also the collapse of morale in seasickness, the unwelcome necessary decisions, and the fear which abates when you actually do something for the ship. Here too are the shrill moments and the arguments , and the healing acceptance of comradeship and of loyalty and gratefulness to the boat herself.
It’s all there: the changing sea you travel through with rope and cloth and hope, trying to do the right thing.


booking via Touring to 9 July

rating four  4 Meece Rating

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I caught up a few days late with this (cheap seats aloft, excitingly closer to the rock-face in Hildegard Bechtler’s Mediterranean-terrace set than the stalls people below, representing the waves). I was drawn to bag a late ticket by huge respect for Alexi Kaye Campbell’s last London play – PRIDE – with its skilful interweaving of past and present in the treatment of Britain’s gay men. And given his Greek family ancestry, there was intrigue in the idea of a play set in 1967 – when the junta of Colonels took power – and nine years later with democracy restored . What could go wrong?



Early reviews of Simon Godwin’s production were lukewarm, tending to find it a bit wordy, politically declamatory and slow: indeed the first half tends a bit that way. And given the present Greek crisis some wished that it had stretched closer to the present. But now (well bedded in) the play grew on me, offering multiple layers of thought and pinpricks of proper indignation, right through to a sharp final twist of the political knife.



It opens in 1967 in Ayckbournian style with a British middle-class playwright Theo (Sam Crane) and his actress wife Charlotte (Pippa Nixon) laughingly dreading the arrival of holiday acquaintances: a brash US State Department “floater” Harvey – a senatorial Ben Miles – and his Barbie wife June, Elizabeth McGovern in a period-perfect flickup blonde hairdo. They are lodging in a lovely old villa whose owner Maria and her Dad are emigrating to Sydney, away from political upheavals. Harvey, with American gusto and flattery for Theo’s writing, talks the English couple into buying it for a song from the fairly desperate Greeks. He is full of large statements about how “democracy and theatre are twins, born here at the same moment”. Running through the play, an understated but useful theme, is the curiously strong magnetic effect which – even as we mock – American optimism and overstatement often have on weedier, more doubtful liberal Brits.


Nine years later, after the interval, Theo and Charlotte have two small children scattering crayons and bounding around with “uncle” Harvey; inter- and intra-couple relationships are thinning perilously, not least since Barbie June finds Harvey hasn’t been the same “since Chile”, or slept with her, after an innocent, musical young Chilean neighbour was rounded up and “disappeared” in the American-backed anti-Communist coup against Allende. She is drinking heavily (McGovern catches beautifully her borderlne loss of control) and gives away the fact that her husband paranoiacally carries a gun everywhere. So Charlotte goes nuts in a predictably anti-gun rant. And Harvey, full of bravura, attempts a Greek dance with the children she Charlotte shrilly gives him the full Guardianista rant about wicked “cultural appropriation” of a music born out of exile and poverty. So he rounds on her with a story devastatingly underlining the fact that their whole takeover of Maria’s house and very dinnerplates is rather beyond a mere dance.



Nixon and Miles are superb in confrontation: Sam Crane’s weedy uncertain politically-correct playwright pales in comparison with the American’s honest acknowledgement that he, and all of us, carry a first-world guilt and should be wary of throwing the first stone. Pippa’s excoriation of American world managment – “Your definition of democracy is a selective one” is twisted back on her. And a lovely grace-note, prefiguring today’s mess, is that Theo and Charlotte are selling the house on to a German. And buying a Cornish holiday cottage: whose price has, of course, itself dispossessed locals. And they can’t see that either.
It’s a finer play than its slow first half promised. Glad I didn’t miss it.
box office 0207 452 3000 to 4 August
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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WILD Hampstead, NW3




God bless a playwright you can’t predict. Mike Bartlett’s Charles III was founded on a pretty simple idea, and a frankly rather jejune imagining about the Royal family; it transferred up West and to America amid huge plaudits. This one by contrast is rich in important, complex ideas and riskily surreal conversations, and is most unlikely to transfer : not least because of a certain extraordinary, unexpected technical coup de theatre in the last ten of its hundred minutes. Only a detailed scan of the credits will give you any clue to that. So good for Mr Bartlett, and for his director James MacDonald, who keeps even the more oddly structured conversations watchable; and let us add a bouquet of freshly-picked hydraulics and spanners for designer Miriam Buether and the techies.


Bartlett draws inspiration from the Edward Snowden case, but it is no bio-play: rather, he is gripped by the odd novelty of this particular “traitor”s position. You don’t need to be a Philby or Burgess these days: one day you’re a quiet , nerdy ordinary chap working at a screen and eating at KFC with your girlfriend yet within a week you’re an exile in a hotel room in Moscow. Your passport’s gone, you’ve no status anywhere on the planet, your own country threatens the electric chair , and the world is in turmoil over your revelations about secret government surveillance which has, in a digital age, crept up on us all. What you have done is unprecedented, huge, shocking, risky to all. “The USA” observes one of his interlocutors matily “doesn’t have a proportionate punishment for only have one life”.




She also muses on the likelihood of the hero Andrew – Jack Farthing, who is credibly half-defiant and half-scared throughout – killing himself, as people often do when in a position which defines them forever. She cites Dr David Kelly and the nurse who took the spoof call about the Duchess of Cambridge. “Never to be known for anything else, for art or music or sport or charity…”. Daunting.


Two interlocutors visit Andrew’s bland hotel room, with its cut-off phone and confiscated laptop. The woman – Caolfhionn Dunne – is foxy in black, irritatingly provocative, deliberately confusing; we are never sure if she is Russian at all, for she seems to be Cambridge-English. The man , who at first denies having heard of her, is dourer, pointing out that Andrew is now a prime assassination target. Gradually the leaker’s naive idealism is mocked, challenged, stripped: we reflect on the extraordinary fact that digital information and its handlers can create a situation where the key, massive leaker might not actually be very bright or politically savvy. The dubious moralities of the modern age seep through: the USA, says the woman matily, has lost its USP of good behaviour and is “a spy state, a torture state, a terrorist”. The man (John Mackay, beautifully lugubrious) points out the paradox that democracy requires security, but then undermines itself with the surveillance needed for that security – “there are things that have to be done in the dark, to protect society, that society does not want to hear about”.




There is a wonderfully creepy thoughtfulness about it; but gradually the political points ,as the confrontations go odder, are shaved away until we are in a Beckettian, Pinterish, surrealism with a side order of Schroeding and existential doubt about the nature of reality itself. And you start to think, “ho hum, this is all Philosophy Club chatter”… but then the extraordinary coup de theatre happens, and that’s a real treat. And is quite possibly the reason they had to delay the press night by three days. Well worth it.

Box office: 020-7722 9301 to 16 July
rating Four. The fourth is technical. Oh yes. The mouse that ran up the grandfather clock…you’ll see what I mean.    4 Meece Rating




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Ralph Fiennes is a menace. An utter menace. Other actors beware. He will cheat, stab and simply out-act you right off the end of the stage.
His command of the audience, the material and everyone else around him is terrifying.
Around the bright Fiennes, the small Almeida stage is dull iron, backed by a curtain of chain mail. Above us, a large crown looms large over the action and below, an awkward grave muddies it. As we find our seats men in hard hats inspect the hole in the ground. This is 2012, rather than 1485. This blessed plot has been car-parked over, and the confused people of Leicester are surprised to find the warped skeleton of a Monarch has been living beneath them.





Rupert Goold has pulled off an absolute triumph in making something which on paper seems trite, actually play out as delicately moving. In the final moments of the play, as Richard dies and Ralph’s spiney, limpy frame falls back into the hole, and the hard hats come crawling back out, the weary scene almost brought me to tears. It was Shakespearean history dragged kicking and screaming into relevance. The ruthless backstabbing looked like the most recent of corporate dramas, the battle was a fresh slice of action, the humanity as relevant as ever.



Richard is the quickest of wits. Fiennes, the consummate comedian, gives the
most technically precise, charismatic and chillingly charming of performance.s The glint in his dark eyes could boil water. He is not a olde king tyrant living on the page: he is your worst nightmare, stood breathing in front of you.




And his peers slot excellently in around him. The most memorable , the women. Perhaps more functional,  the men. Vanessa Redgrave dusts off her best shattered lioness as Queen Margaret, Joanna Vanderham gives a screamingly heartbreaking Queen Elizabeth and Susan Engel as the Duchess of York makes a complicated character the easiest of watches. The men – partner -in-crime Buckingham, quickly-dispatched Clarence and loyal Catesby – grip tightly, but never really draw blood. Maybe the superhuman glow from Fiennes dulls their performances, but in a production as good as this that is far from criticism.


I am usually of the opinion that any play over 2 hours in self indulgent, but at 3 hours 15 minutes this is worth every minute. Long live the king.


Until 6th August.
Box Office: 020 7359 4404
This production will also be screened in cinemas on 21st July.
Rating: five  5 Meece Rating

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A hairdo can be eloquent. When Bryan Dick as Willie Mossop first emerges quaking with humility from a trapdoor under old Hobson’s shop, above a flapping leather apron and ragged shirt his dishevelled hair sports the nerdiest of centre partings – borderline imbecile indeed, with sad flapping black locks either side. But the redoubtable Maggie, sick of paternal domination, hoicks him out of servitude, marries him by sheer force of character, (“I’m engaged to Ada Figgins!” “Then you’ll get loose of her!”), channels his talent into a rival business, and by the closing scene gormless Willie confronts the drunken old tyrant Hobson in a smart business suit and – crucially – a neatly Brylcreemed side parting.



It’s a nice detail, and Bryan Dick as Willie steals the show with his moments of terror at Maggie’s resolute advances -“I’ve got my work cut out, but you’ve the makings of a man about you!”. One cannot help thinking fondly of Bernard Levin’s immortal description during the late Cecil Parkinson’s crisis with another Maggie – “He seems to follow the principle of promising to share his life with whichever lady has most recently spoken sharply to him”. Naomi Frederick’s Maggie, brilliantly deadpan in her commanding ways, deals superbly with his very funny wedding-night jitters: I do like a woman with the resolution to haul her diminutive groom to bed by the ear.




So there are great delights in Jonathan Church’s revival of Harold Brighouse’s 1916 play: last time it was in London Nadia Fall updated it to another time of social change and womanly revolution, the 1960s, but Church keeps it resolutely in Victorian period, when fine boots were a pound , clogs a few pence and censorious fathers thought a bustle indecently provocative (“a lump added to nature”). There’s a marvellously evocative set by Simon Higlett (particularly the Salford cellar where Maggie and Willie set up business).



And of course the latest return of the septuagenarian Martin Shaw to the stage is a delight, especially as he storms around in a tornado of outrage and whiskers in the second act when his dissolution has fully set in. He is slightly less convincing – too amusingly lovable – in the first act, and his daughters seem more exasperated than afraid of him; so that when he threatens Willie with his belt, it doesn’t ring quite true. But the second Act’s drunkenly semi-comic Lear rings truer, as do his Goneril and Regan (Florence Hall and Gabrielle Dempsey) when they refuse to move in and look after him, and there a notable, understatedly powerful presence (equivalent I suppose of Lear’s Fool) in David Shaw-Parker as Tubby the clogmaker,



But as ever, it is Maggie who holds the stage, whether dominating her quaking groom or, oddly touchingly, insisting that the rest of the family respect him.
It remains an entertaining evening, a period piece and honourable in the WW1 centenary, reminding us that it was written in a time of social turbulence and female rising as well as carnage and heroism. Though set in the 1880s, its spirit is fiercely, hintingly Edwardian: Brighouse knew what he was doing.



Though of course what he was mainly doing was comedy, in a direct line from Shakespeare’s Shrew and Much Ado. It shows its age, and might have benefited from a trim in the Priestleyesque wordiness of the second act; but Maggie Mossop – née Hobson – remains one of the English stage’s great characters, and it was good to see her back.

box office 0330 333 4814 to 10 Sept
rating three   3 Meece Rating

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In E.M.Forster’s HOWARD’S END, the dreamy Helen Schlegel can’t listen to Beethoven without imagining heroes, goblins, dancing elephants and shipwrecks. If you are prone to a similar synaesthetic response, here comes 75 minutes of bliss. If listening to Britten’s Young Apollo makes you wish for a man juggling bowler-hats and a woman in a long tutu cartwheeling amid dark sinister goat-men, book in now : there are only two more performances. If a really good John Adams glissando brings visions of an artiste’s glorious slithering in aerial silks, Struan Leslie’s remarkable melding of string orchestra with expressive circus will enchant you. And of course if like me you then recklessly add another layer of seemingly unconnected art-memory, the suspension of a dark male figure descending on a trapeze to scoop up a sleeping soprano can have you murmuring Keats’ The Eve of St Agnes to yourself (“Awake, arise my love and fearless be..”).



Nicholas Collon, conducting (and once briefly getting crowdsurfed backwards by the Circus ensemble) shares the wide Maltings stage not only with the strings of his Aurora orchestra but with a dramatic set by Gary McCann, which looks at first like a New York skyline in silhouette but reveals itself as more like a disorganized furniture warehouse, where someone has put the chairs on top of the wardrobes and balanced a bed impossibly overhanging a 10ft void. Into this precarious bed, admirably self-possessed, climbs the glamorous operatic-baroque soprano Sarah Tynan in a sea-green robe and blue cloak. Under the latter, on what looks like a very hard plank, she rests seemingly asleep until woken to sing by her Britten cue and the dark erotic forces of nine circus performers around her trapezing, aerial-hooping, menacingly stalking and crazily cartwheeling.


If there is an award for gamest soprano of the Aldeburgh Festival, she’s won it: some artistes, even operatic ones, would stiffly remind a director of their eminence – “For this I train ten years?” – if asked to spend the first twenty minutes feigning sleep, then get dangled upside down, and manhandled by a chap in fur leggings and numerous elvish figures in tight newsprint Lycra, all while singing Britten’s Les Illuminations . Not to mention getting dizzily hauled 50 feet up on a flimsy hoop into the pitch darkness of the Maltings rafters. What a trouper.



Mais serieusement, as we Francophiles say, is it worth doing, is it good, is it art? This is, after all, the opening flourish of the tres serieux Aldeburgh Festival. So yes, absolutely, it is tremendous. The music which Struan Leslie has put together with the Britten settings of Rimbaud’s weird, surreally sensuous French poems is Debussy and John Adams, and somehow it creates one odd, fantastical dreamscape; to my ear it is all immaculately played, and the circus skills, synchornized almost eerily with the mood and pace of the music, are high in every sense (there’s a segment on two trapezes and a swinging strop which made me grip the seat). Tynan’s voice of course is astonishing: pure violent vigour, breathtaking sweetness, goddess authority.



And it’s witty: the orchestra move around the stage between sections with an air of great enjoyment, and one at least has no inhibition about having a quick swing on the aerial strop himself on the way across, dangling his double-bass in the other hand. An odd, wild, engrossing 75 minutes. running this Sat and Sun
Cheapest tickets £ 16 and all half price to under-21s. Who will love it!

rating:  five mice for audacity  5 Meece Rating

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“We’re death to one another, you and I”. The great cry from trapped, degraded macho Freddie, struggling to leave the desperate demanding Hester Collyer as she clings to his very shoes, marks a turning-point in what – as any fule kno – is one of Terence Rattigan’s greatest and most intimately felt plays. Her “Don’t leave me alone tonight!” rips through the air as the door slams. She has already tried suicide once.



That in the short second act she finally rejects tragedy is, again as Rattiganites know, wishful thinking from the playwright. The inspiration for Hester’s gas-fire attempt was the death in that way of his own ex-lover, Kenny Morgan: indeed currently at the Arcola is a fine play about him, echoing this . (my review below, or ).




That interval moment, on press night, saw me having to leave Carrie Cracknell’s new production for a pressing family need, so I may not in honesty offer a final rating . But it is one of Rufus Norris’ first wholly ‘classic’ productions in his NT tenure, and worth noting: so here is what we learn from its first longer half. Typically for Cracknell, it is done without unnecessary flourishes or updatings but with artful, revealing twists, an intense central performance, strong support and a powerful dramatic line .




The play consists of intense conversations in one room – Hester and Freddie, Hester and her abandoned husband the Judge, Freddie and his drinking friend Jack, landlady and neighbours, and not least the dry, mysterious struck-off German Jewish doctor Miller who is the emotional deus ex machina. So Tom Scutt’s design of the seedy boarding-house uses the full width of the stage as characters move apart and together, and walls become transparent indicating the other lives beyond, to heighten the isolation of Hester. : Peter Rice’s low, sound design is another subtle, moody clue: the richness of production values draws in a cinema generation without losing vivid theatrical immediacy. When Freddie casually searches his lover’s dressing-gown pocket for cigarettes and the audience knows a certain note is there, there is an audible hissing sigh. It’s that good.




Helen McCrory’s Hester neatly indicates from the start the hopeless social back-story of a clergyman’s naive daughter who married a man too paternal and too straight, then fell for the =seemingly lost overgrown schoolboy, the wartime pilot in aimless peacetime. It became for her “too big and confusing to be tied up in a parcel named lust”. Even in the earliest scenes as she is revived from the first attempt, her brittle civilities mark her class just as Freddie’s cheerful saloon-bar manner marks his. The sexual chemistry between them is electric, despite his obvious growing reluctance to succumb again to it. (“I can’t be a ruddy Romeo all the time”.) Tom Burke gives Freddie , too easily played as a heartless beast, a real conflicted identity, immature and trapped; Peter Sullivan as the judge is straight, not unattractive or unsympathetic: his angry plea for duty and “sanity” from the yearning Hester is the right kind of shock. Like the sardonic Miller he might well echo “Nature has not endowed me with a capacity for inspiring suicidal love”.



And there I must leave it. A fine production, all reports suggest that the last 45 minutes I missed were very fine, intense faithful to Rattigan’s anguish, search for redemptiveness, and ttransformation of his own life’ reality into one of those astonishing, perceptive portraits of women. Which, ironically, have been so often written lately by gay men: Rattigan, Coward, Tennessee Williams, Alan Bennett…there’s a thesis in that.
box office 020 7452 3000 to 21 Sept

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TITANIC Charing Cross Theatre SW1




Full disclosure: I really care about the Titanic story, love maritime history, have met one of the last living survivors of the 1912 disaster, and visited exhibitions about it here and in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The rediscovery of bandmaster Hartley’s violin stirred my depths. I was enraged by the dreadful eezi-pleazey James Cameron film, with its catchpenny inverted snobberies and schlocky Winslet-diCaprio rom-com; not to mention the shameful slur on First Officer Murdoch.


So I approached this one with caution. But within ten minutes was head over heels in love with it, not just because of Maury Yeston’s stirring music and lyrics (this man knows how to use the human power of a chorale). It was also because of a kind of fidelity: to the period’s Edwardian style, musical and visual, to its vaulting ambition and belief in a new world of engineering and opportunity, and to the simple fact that on a sea voyage however firm the class distinctions every individual has a right to hopes and dreams.
In a damp sparse midweek matinee (a tricky time at home, one leaps at chances) it blew me away. A bit embarrassing, that, since now two days running two modest new musicals have dazzled me into multiple mice: but after all Yeston’s score and Peter Stone’s book won a hatful of Tonys in the US and great plaudits here three years ago. So it isn’t just me. That director Thom Southerland (who just scored again at Southwark with Grey Gardens) should have brought it home to this cosy spot under Charing Cross station is something to rejoice at: though it seems a pity that a more prestigious theatre didn’t fight for it.





Because it is, I tell you, rather wonderful. Honestly. Go see it. Some very good price tickets.
Yeston says that it was the idea of dreams and ambitions that drove him, and it certainly drives the tremendous opening: David Woodhead’s set of decks, rails and moving companionway is neatly echoed by the little theatre’s balcony rails and retro lampshades, and the company of twenty swarm onto the ship, excitement mounting. Glee and pride and astonishment and thrill shake the house, from the scuttling stewards loading 1100lb of marmalade and countless potatoes to the sixty-shilling Irish girls in third class running away to a better life, the aspirational second-class Alice (Claire Machin) determined to stand next to an Astor or Guggenheim if it kills her, the first-class passengers who are also given their humanity, and the labouring stokers in the engine-room.





The use of big, joyful choruses is tremendous throughout – though individual arias stand out too, notably Matthew Crowe as the nerdy, snooty wireless operator warming into benevolence at the marvel of his dee-dada -dit trade, Alice’s dream of ambition, and several moments of marvellous macho belting from the strong men at the heart of the crisis. Philip Rham is the Captain, Sion Lloyd designer Andrews from the Harland and Wolf shipyard, and the nearest thing to a villain on board is Bruce Ismay (David Bardsley) from the White Star Line.



For under the glee and the exposure – neatly indicated – of private dreams and circumstances among the passengers, musically and verbally throbs always the approaching doom, the reward of hubris. Ismay was determined it should be a six-day ship on the transatlantic route (“even the Krauts can do it”) and urged high speeds and the short, icebound northern route. The others uneasy concern joins icy mist swirling around the bridge, human preoccupations swirling below on a calm moonless final night, the music swelling every few minutes into a great chorus of hope we know is hopeless. We strike the iceberg at the end of the longer first half: the rest is a dramatic foundering, and finally a decently quiet memorial to the 1503 who died, with a sheet of names and the memories of real survivors. Stirring, decent, strong.

Box office: 08444 930 650 to 6 Aug
rating five  5 Meece Rating

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Around a derelict room and abandoned trunk, Michael Crawford prowls, a tweedy, damaged old man at the heart of this low-key but unforgettable new musical: singing, remembering, haunted by a diary . It opens with no showy feelgood overture but an almost liturgical harmony as an ensemble of pale ghosts torment him with “We are still here…” . No band: a lone grand piano with Nigel Lilley the musical director , draws harmonies , discords and operatic recitative from the ever-shifting ensemble; who also become , through understatedly beautiful movement, not only characters but a strawstack, flights, a row of shops in 1903 Norwich. The music is sometimes lushly romantic, sometimes borrowing from Edwardian comic-song and ballad, sometimes as eerie and threatening as in an occult thriller. It is a hypnotic show: Sondheimish, in a good way.




So this new British musical (from Perfect Pitch with Northampton, Derby and West Yorkshire Playhouse) is special. L.P.Hartley’s 1953 novel became a famous film and lately was a BBC drama, but to make it a musical felt foolhardy. A tormented memory-piece about an Edwardian schoolboy’s loss of innocence, remembered by his damaged older self fifty years later, falls neither into the realm of rom-com or high drama. But the composer is Richard Taylor of Whistle Down the Wind, who has just astonished and delighted us with the equally intimate Flowers for Mrs Harris. And, crucially, the book and lyrics are by David Wood. As our leading children’s playwright (remember Goodnight Mr Tom) he naturally homes in on the boy, the baffled innocent at the story’s heart. Roger Haines’ direction, deceptively simple, is in movement and emotional control a piece of pure theatre.



Crawford is the old Leo Colston, anxiously watching his past unreeling around him and arguing with his younger self, sometimes rapt in memory of the good times, sometimes horrified. The story (for newcomers) deals with a naive, awkward schoolboy Leo, invited by his far grander friend Marcus to summer at Brandham Hall in Norfolk. His shy adoration of Marion, the sister, gives him the task of carrying messages between her and a rough tenant farmer, Ted Burgess, without understanding how transgressive this is. The final disaster, for which the child feels responsible, has blighted Colston’s afterlife: the question is whether in memory he can find redemption. In an age very conscious of childhood trauma and dangerous memory it could hardly be more topical.





Although it is, of course, also thoroughly Edwardian. Wood’s text catches all Hartley’s period atmosphere: not least in the language and unawareness of the two schoolboys (peerless on press night – William Thompson as the sensitive Leo, Archie Stevens as the rumbustious, very funny Marcus, very Molesworth in his prepschool slangy “come on, old turnip-top!”). They sing like angels, especially Leo, Thompson more than holding his own in duets with Michael Crawford. But Gemma Sutton’s Marion is pure magic too: arrogant in her beauty, recklessly in love, manipulating the boy’s adoration, daughter of a time when, as her gentlemanly fiancé says, “Nothing is ever a lady’s fault” but she pays for that with her freedom.




The sombre, disfigured Viscount Trimingham is Stephen Carlile, again catching the period manner exactly, and Issy van Randwyck, correctly matriarchal, finally explodes into terrifying fury as her plans unravel. As for Stuart Ward’s Ted, he conveys enough crass roughness to underline the social impossibility of the affair, and enough solid decency beneath it to serve the tale’s climax and conclusion.




There are some stunningly beautiful songs – not least Leo’s yearning sense of emerging as a butterfly in the hot, hot dangerous summer, and Crawford’s redemptive finale;. The set-pieces, swimming-party, cricket match and denouement, are climactic. But it is the line of the story, the urgency and emotional truth Wood and Taylor bring out of it, which sends you away happily startled.
box office 0844 579 1971 to 15 october
rating five

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THE ALCHEMIST Swan, Stratford




Credulity and the con-artist, blinding-with-science and the selling of snake-oil, belong to all human eras. Ben Jonson’s play is set in 1610, when a householder flees the London plague and servants illicitly use the premises for their own ends. But as Polly Findlay’s deliciously daft, high-speed farce of foolishness develops, some of the pleasure lies in recognizing modern parallels.



The foolish Abel Drugger , a gloriously daft RSC debut from young Richard Leeming , begs the “alchemist” Subtle (Mark Lockyer in ratty flowing locks and assorted magic robes) for astrological advice on where to put the door and shelves in his new shop: pure feng-shui. Other customers drawn in by Subtle and the butler Face (Ken Nwosu) might as well be moderns being sold fake legal highs, dating services, horoscopes, and – in the case of the magnificently ambitious Sir Epicure Mammon – financial advice. Ian Redford in a vast beard and vaster leather breastplate gets a private round of applause for an oligarchically barmy riff on what he will do when the Philosopher’s Stone brings him vast wealth : feasts of dolphin-milk butter, carps’ tongues, camels’ heels dissolved in pearls and eaten with amber spoons, fish-skin gloves perfumed with Paradise, all that. He’d fit in beautifully with the modern superyacht set. Kastril, “an angry boy”, delivered with insane energy and lunatic moves by Tom McCall, just wants to learn to deliver a showy quarrel without personal risk: today he’d be on Top Gear. There is even, amid the cant about Ptolemy and Paracelsus, a reference to Temple Church, so Dan Brown believers can nod sagely at that…




Nobody is virtuous in a Jonson romp and everyone quarrels, including the male con-artists, forever being hauled back into line by their formidable female partner Dol Common, and two Anabaptist monks from Amsterdam (yes, it’s that sort of show, Monty Python can teach it nothing) . Surly, who comes with Sir Epicure to scoff and then disguises himself as a dazzlingly garish Spaniard to expose the con, wants his own cut of the proceeds (a rich widow who by then is being fought over by most of them). Even Hywel Morgan’s returning householder turns a blind eye in return for a slice.




The pace increases scene by scene and the physical comedy is stunning, even without the Act 2 explosion: to the point that poor Mark Lockyer had to be helped offstage for ten minutes on press night with a torn knee (he came back, unbowed, despite artistic director Greg Doran’s sporting offer from the stage to “tell you the rest of the story myself” ) . And the costumes help no end: a bustle you could set out a tea-party on, pantaloons the size of Smartcars and in one of the more chaotic interventions Joshua McCord being smothered in The Petticoat Of Fortune.




There’s a standout performance too from a second RSC debutante Siobhan McSweeney as Dol Common, culminating in her dangling irritably overhead in a delightfully unmanageable aerial sequence, a fairy godmother in bloomers, crinoline and a faux-posh accent. Normally it’s a stuffed crocodile up on that rope, a creature which I keep thinking I have seen dangling over the Swan stage before (was it in Arden of Faversham?? or The City Madam? help!). And Ken Nwosu – who in an elegant final moment of meta-theatre sees us off – gets to use Crocky’s jaws as a moneybox.

So a happy night. I hope Mr Lockyer’s knee gets some good physio, and he knows it was worth it. For us, anyway…
box office 0844 800 1110 to 6 Aug, then Barbican in autumn
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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The Deep Blue Sea is Terence Rattigan’s masterpiece (and about to play at the National Theatre). A young woman who has left her eminent older husband for an alcoholic young fighter-pilot is found at the start lying by a gas fire, being revived by down-at-heel neighbours after a suicide attempt in a shabby boarding-house. It is, in the end, redemptive. But in real life the three ill-starred lovers were men: young Kenny Morgan had left Rattigan for a younger lover and was being left in his turn by Alec Lennox. And Morgan died; Rattigan, after long minutes of silent shock at the news, resolved to make a play.




He changed the gender of course: Kenny became Hester. Homosexuality was illegal, imprisonable. As was attempted suicide.Years later, the playwright deplored this need for “Lord-Chamberlain-induced sex-change dishonesty”, and wondered whether to rewrite Kenny’s story as it was. He didn’t: so Mike Poulton, in homage to a past master and justice to those bitter pre-Wolfenden days, gives us Kenny’s story.


Like Rattigan’s play it is set in one room, in one day: a seedy Camden of 1948, a Patrick-Hamilton world brilliantly evoked in Robert Innes Hopkins’ stark room, scuffed and threadbare below a glimmering urban window. Director Lucy Bailey draws out some stunning performances including sharp cameos from the two women: Marlene Sidaway’s judgmentally fussy landlady (“His sort…musicians…theatricals.. least said soonest mended”) and Lowenna Melrose as Norma Hastings, cynically perceptive part-time girlfriend of the bisexual Lennox.


The core though is with three men: Kenny, the heartless Lennox, and Rattigan himself as he twice arrives, fastidiously appalled by the flat, trying to help and reclaim his young lover. Each has a different view of love. Kenny, painfully sweet and helplessly needy, wants a real relationship but also the impossible public validation of it : he still simmers with affront that in his years with the famous and socially lionized “Terry”, he had to live in a secret separate flat ,and once got introduced as his golf caddy. With Lennox his neediness becomes disastrous, because the younger man “just wants everybody to have fun”. Pierro Niel-Mee plays it with black-browed, bisexual brio, and a cruelty only available to the very, very young. And Rattigan too is perfect: senatorial, big in his grand overcoat, offering help and money and wanting his Kenny back, but on the same discreet terms. “Everything comes back to shame!” cries Kenny. The theme of gay shame and that long legal persecution and hiding runs through the play, alongside the close reflection of The Deep Blue Sea, darkening it with that history even as it affirms that love, desire, disappointment and betrayal are not confined to one gender or orientation.




Another close reflection is that Poulton borrows entire the figure of the struck-off, Austrian Jewish doctor who rescues Kenny first time round and lectures him on endurance and survival; George Irving is a dry, powerful Ritter. But Poulton adds another lodger too: Dafydd Lloyd, an Admiralty clerk who, shy and gauche and well-meaning, reminds Kenny of two things: the recent war (“We lost a lot of shipping, a lot of good men, there’s no going back”) and endearingly pleads that beyond racking emotion lies life. “S”not that bad being ordinary, old chap..”.


I wondered at times whether the play was a little too long (two and a half hours with its interval), and needed a Rattigan discipline: we hear a lot of repetition of Kenny’s hopeless need for public acknowledgement. But a day later, I think not. It was all necessary, and very fine.

BOX OFFICE 020 7503 1646
RATING FOUR   4 Meece Rating

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