Monthly Archives: June 2016




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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