Monthly Archives: June 2016

FAITH HEALER Donmar WC2

FAITH . FAILURE AND THE GENIUS OF FRIEL

 

 
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

ZELLER ZOOMS UP WEST, SHARP AS EVER

 

 
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 http://tinyurl.com/zzpno6y – 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   http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk to
rating: still five…5 Meece Rating

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

IN RANSOME’S WAKE, A NORTH SEA TALE OF TOUGHER DAYS

 

 

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 http://tinyurl.com/h3pfw7g easternangles.co.uk Touring to 9 July

rating four  4 Meece Rating

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SUNSET AT THE VILLA THALIA NT Dorfman, SE1

 VACATION,  EXPLOITATION,  ACCUSATION…

 

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

REBELLION AND REALITY IN A SKEWED WORLD

 

 

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 this..you 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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RICHARD III, Almeida N1

GUEST REVIEWER LUKE JONES IS CHILLED, THRILLED, DAZZLED

 

 

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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HOBSON’S CHOICE Vaudeville, WC2

THE FIRST MAGGIE…
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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