Monthly Archives: August 2016

ALLEGRO southwark playhouse, SE1

A RARITY, AND A TOPICAL TREAT

 

 

It’s an American story and a universal one: choose money and status, or idealistic service? Big business or big heart, slick city or smalltown values? Or, if you must, Trump or Hillary? All the way from Louisa May Alcott to Its a Wonderful Life, the old tension has provided drama. And with its usual brilliance Southwark Playhouse has spotted a forgotten morality-tale : a soaring, serious little musical which suits its intimate scale, putting sincerity above spectacle. Its ensemble – the choreographer is Lee Proud – featly dance the bare-stage scaffolding and ladders around, and the piece rolls along with the characteristic deftness and wit of director Thom Sutherland (scroll here to TITANIC or GREY GARDENS for more Thomophilia).

 

 

 
Astonishingly, this is the European premiere of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical from the mid-1940s. They had broken the mould with the dramatic stories and integrated music of Oklahoma and Carousel,  and had the idea of a new sort of show : a greek  chorus commentary urging on the protagonists as they related a life, its childhood influences, marital decisions and moral dilemmas in a Smalltown American setting.  It wasn’t a great success, but Sutherland turns it out as something rivetingly engaging and emotionally honest.

 

 

 

 

The story is simply that of a young man, Joe, studying to be a doctor like his dedicated Dad and grandfather, and yearning for his childhood sweetheart all through college but finding her harder-edged than he thinks. Envying her friends who marry quick-buck businessman, Jenny proves a mistress of passive-aggressive manipulation (entertainingly egged on at one point by the chorus with “be clever!” and hints on how to win a husband round). She wants chinchilla coats and status, not the life of a country doctor’s wife. Joe is haunted, even after their beautifully directed, melancholy deaths, by the idealism of his grandmother and his mother (a gloriously melodious Jula Nagle ) who stalk through the set as he dithers and decides first whether to go into the lumber trade with his arrogant father-in law, then whether to leave the sober paternal medical practice to be a society doctor in Chicago, prescribing drugs for demanding ladies who have “20 million and still can’t sleep” .

 

 

 
The great Depression figures briefly, bringing down the rich father-in =-law and making Jenny still more discontented: “Money isn’t everything. Well, I don’t want everything, I’ll just take money!”. The music is mellow, emotionally risk: some terrific numbers are choreographed close-up and witty by joyful girls in Mary-Jane shoes and lads in waistcoats, the wedding number dropping nicely into a minor key to presage trouble; one extraordinary standout aria “Come home!” is placed so tensely in the drama that it doesn’t even draw its own well-deserved round of applause. This is the musical as drama, which is what R & H wanted after all.

 

 

 
There is a lovely lighthearted portrayal of Joe’s posh friend Charlie, Dylan Turner all two-tone shoes and two-timed girlfriends; and possibly the only big musical number celebrating an infant’s first steps as a metaphor for life’s journey. For all the jerks of real pain – as intense as in Carousel – it feels finally like the most durably uplifting kind of ‘40s movie: America working out its values and hoping for the best. It’s a good year for that.

 

box office 020 7407 0234 to 10 Sept
rating Four   4 Meece Rating

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THE ENTERTAINER Garrick, SW1

KENNETH BRANAGH IS NO KEN DODD…

 

 
If you find yourself in an audience of maturer years , flee quickly at the final curtain, or someone will creakingly inform you that they saw Olivier as Archie Rice, John Osborne’s failing music-hall performer  in 1957. Or maybe it was the 1960  I, on the other hand, can offer for what it’s worth the perspective of one who never saw this glum, angry metaphor for Britain’s decline into 1950’s pointlessness and Suez disgrace played at all.

 

 

 
So I come fresh to this finale of Kenneth Branagh’s season, starring the man himself directed by Rob Ashford. On the other hand, after Derby’s revival of Look Back In Anger, the Finborough’s rather marvellous “A subject of scandal and concern”, and the Donmar’s Inadmissible Evidence, the theme is familiar: Osborne’s men, especially Jimmy Porter and Archie Rice, are ancestors of a long (and generally tedious) line of ranters who confuse their own depression, sexual incontinence and inadequate misogyny as a state-of-the-nation vision. One meets them at the Fringe, or sidling into the mainstream with a light metrosexual-confessional gloss.

 

 

 

So it was interesting. But for all the professionalism, the marvellous seedy ‘50s backdrops of peeling gilt and holiday postcards by Christopher Oram; for all the standout brilliance of Greta Scacchi playing blousily despairing and helplessly angry as Archie’s wife Phoebe, it doesn’t really work. Not even with Archie’s truly terrible music-hall jokes and Branagh’s truly admirable admirable tap dancing – feet syncopating like the last faltering drumbeats of the Empire . It is not a great play. It makes you dismally wonder whether it isn’t time to ring down the curtain on angry-old-Ozzy for a while, saving only his Luther. As Archie would say, it “played better first house”.

 

 

 
One problem is a slow start: Gawn Grainger is splendid as grandad Billy, ranting about Poles ,Irish , male ballet dancers, railway food and how people used to take their hats off passing the Cenotaph (“even on the bus”). Yet there’s nothing striking there for a post-Alf-Garnett generation, and the one-note delivery of Sophie McShera as granddaughter Jean, supposedly the modern voice, is disconcertingly dull. Scacchi is terrific, giving Phoebe real depth and pain below the absurdity ; Jonah Hauer -King as the draft-refusing son is fine too, sharply touching when not forced to spout the usual nihilist-atheist-depressive Osborne shtick about how we’re all alone and nobody cares, especially Tories.

 

 

 
But the central problem is Archie. Branagh delivers the stage routines competently, but without the mesmeric conviction and control which even a middling music-hall veteran deploys. Perhaps too keen to justify his later claim of being “dead behind the eyes” he has an air of ironically knowing how awful it all is, even while he’s doing it. It doesn’t ring true: nobody keeps it up as long as he is supposed to without being addicted to rapport and laughter. He is far more convincing in the domestic rants and vituperation, but the halves don’t stick together . The Osborne misogyny grates too: nuns, tarts, barmaids, Phoebe herself are despised, and even when he gets tearful about a “negress” who sang a gospel song he can’t stop sneering at the “fat cheeks” of the “old bag”.

 

 

 
It is hard to care about his despair. And without that, the play’s own despair at the state of Britain rings hollow and dated. Osborne gave up on the nation too soon. And, indeed, on music-hall. As a silently ironic audience scoffs at Archie’s awful routines, note that in 2016 the great Ken Dodd is still touring, selling out vast houses and entrancing us for four hours on the trot with just the sort of bad jokes Osborne despaired of sixty years ago. I don’t know what that proves, but it feels important to mention it.

 

box office 0844 482 9673 http://www.branaghtheatre.com to 12 nov
In cinemas nationwide 27 Oct
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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GROUNDHOG DAY O ld Vic, SE1

MINCHIN MAGIC.  ONE TO SEE AGAIN. AND AGAIN.

 

 

The film by Danny Rubin gave us the expression for eternal déja-vu: Bill Murray played Phil the arrogant celebrity weatherman, sent grumbling to smalltown Punxatawney for the folksy ceremonies of February 2nd . That (as well as being my birthday!) is when the groundhog’s shadow predicts the next six weeks’ weather. The folklore is old English: “if Candlemas day be fair and bright, winter will have another flight”. But, mysteriously condemned to wake every day to find it is still the 2nd, weatherman Phil must learn to live it again and again until he grows kinder and earns a future.

 

 

 
The film is clever and funny. But a musical? Well, MATILDA showed that it pays to trust Tim Minchin – music and lyrics – and Matthew Warchus’ direction. And with the book reworked by Rubin, and Minchin’s quirky brilliance and fearless willingness to oompah when it’s needed, somehow the music explodes the smart little story into a big shining cloud of philosophical and moral questioning: laced with killer jokes, wickedly clever lyrics and joyfully witty choreography by Peter Darling (I have never seen a stage revolve so elegantly used). Ellen Kane co-choreographs, and also designs the intricately calculated set of tiny lighted houses and gliding walls; not to mention the wonderfully hokey smalltown winter outfits of the townsfolk.

 

 

 

These matter because the ensemble is really the co-star. Of course Andy Karl is quite fantastic as Phil, driving every scene with a high-energy, perfectly judged journey from furious sarcasm, through bafflement, cynicism and suicidal despair to eventual redemption . Carlyss Peer is likeable as Rita, the producer he hits on and eventually falls for. Others get solo chances: Minchin also lets rip his romantic soul in two unexpected, very beautiful songs from Georgina Hagen as Nancy the wistful one-night-stand girl and Andrew Langtree as the geeky insurance-man Ned. There is a marvellous scene with the town drunks, “Pissing, often missing” and an even better one when Phil seeks help from alternative Reiki-enema’n psychiatry healers all carolling – “I dunno what I”m sayin’, but this guy’s desperate an’ he’s payin”! “

 

 

 

For all that ,though, it is the big leaping, revolving, singing human stew of townsfolk who turn your heart over: officials, workers, bandsmen, carnival revellers, old ladies, slobs, shmucks. The ensemble sing big joyful anthems to spring, and hope, and groundhogs; they express all the innocent human smalltownery which Phil despises. Their magnificence makes Phil’s initial contempt stand out more strongly: “”I have been broadcasting too many years . To talk to these hicks about magical beavers!”.
Minchin playfulness romps through – I love a man who can rhyme toxin with “constipated oxen”, producer with juicer, and give a sad bimbo the reflection “No point protestin’ – cos if you look good in tight jeans that’s what they’ll want you dressed in”. The episodic repetition of Phil’s day speeds up so fast in the first half that you get dizzy, then the second half surprises you first with melancholy, and then with sulphurous darkening to rage, suicide, and a nightmare sequence of despair (with Karl flying aloft in his underwear, and uncannily bi-locating thanks to Paul Kieve’s illusion). The feelgood ending involves massed tap-dancing and a high-speed redemption involving a circling piano,a giant groundhog and a sunrise. And, dammit, a tear in the eye. Minchin magic.

 

 
box office 0844 8717628 to 17 sept Principal Partner: Royal Bank of Canada
rating five   5 Meece Rating

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YOUNG CHEKHOV Olivier, SE1

A TREMENDOUS TRINITY   

 

This trilogy, transferred from Chichester is an epic: a thrilling voyage through time to the earliest days of Anton Chekhov. And, if it is not too philistine a thing to murmur, it will draw to him even those people who don’t fire up with exciteent at the later masterpieces – especially the often morosely played The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters. There are still a few chances to take in the ‘three-play-day”, and however hot and tempting the summer day, it will demonstrate even to doubters that eight hours of 19th century Russian drama can be a perfect way to spend it.

 

 

 
Three three theatre giants – Chekhov, adapter David Hare and director Jonathan Kent – with a brilliant cast create a world joyfully funny, vigorous, real and ruefully familiar to anyone who ever had a family, a neighbourhood and a heart.   Those who already love Chekhov will find all the themes there – passion, disappointed lives, debts, women emerging aflame with opinions and demands, and a 19c Russia trying to work out whether to look ba k to an age of peasants and leisured  landowners or to face a modern, vigorous but perhaps less ethical commercial age. The  set by Tom Pye is gloriously romantic: a woodland, reedfringed  garden with a stream which in the final play becomes a lake.

 

 

 

These are very early plays:  PLATONOV is a rumbustious chronicle of an educated, thwarted widow Anna – Nina Sosanya – and a Byronically handsome man who creates havoc in a family and within himself –  James McArdle, a magnetic presence whether satirically teasing poor dim Maria, passionately wooing Sofya, suddenly regretting it, bumming money off the local rich man and throwing it away, or finally succumbing to men-behaving-badly depression in grimy underwear. Irresistible.   At 20, Chekhov never trimmed the work down from six hours, gave it a name or saw it performed: but Hare’s version is tight, wickedly witty , emotionally honest and rife with snortingly funny one-liners . It is not as confusing at it might be, but fabulous entertainment, increasing pace with sudden entrances of all and sundry, often shouting and in ridiculous hats. It makes you reflect that this Chekhov – able to mix broad observational comedy with harsh shafts of painful feeling – is an ancestor of Ayckbourn and sitcom as much as of the greater modern names.

 

 

 
IVANOV was the young Chekhov’s first produced play , more tightly focused on the central character:  Geoffrey Streatfield is depressive, disappointed , self-lacerating, self-pityingly remorseful and broke:   out of love with his dying Jewish wife and beguiled by the lovely Sasha, his creditor’s daughter.  Olivia Vinall (who is in all three plays) is luminous, blondely angelic and gloriously tempting, but here firmly bossy – a one-woman “ambulance corps” for hopeless Ivanov – “My job in life is to understand him!”.  Her family elders , in a memorable upmarket party scene,  are variously awful and hilarious and rampagingly hungry, but Chekhov always allows gleams of redemptive humanity:  Jonathan Coy is superb as the put-upon father, begging the pair of them just to live a normal flawed life and get on with it.  Darkness rears up in one horrifying three-word shout which makes the audience gasp: then room and wife sink through the floor as if in despair  and Ivanov reels off, wrecked,  into the trees, reeds and water of the bleak beautiful set which serves all three plays.

 

 

 
The last is best known, but still vibrates with youthful melodrama and fury.  THE SEAGULL is the tale of geeky struggling author Konstantin  (an intensely felt performance by Joshua James) , his love for innocent Nina (Vinall shining again) and his diva mother, a bravura Anna Chancellor  with  a pretentious, weak, famous lover Trigorin  (Streatfield again).  The moment when she has rugby-tackled him to stay with her, and he stares helplessly over her shrieking head mutely appealing to the audience, was met with   gales of laughter.

 

 

 

 
All three plays have fireworks, real and emotional; all end in a single pistol-shot; all have glancing references to the figure of Hamlet, both embraced and toughly challenged. All three show us Chekhov not – as we know him from plays like The Cherry Orchard –  as a gentle dispassionate observer,  but as a fierce youth.
He was starting on his lifetime themes of frustration, debt, passion, escape, city versus country values,   human absurdity magnified by vodka, and suicide .  He is young, not afraid to mix hilarity and satire with deep shafts of complicated feeling.   The final curtain call on the three-play day brings everyone on:  McArdle (I am happy to say) back in his long underpants as the battered Byron of the first play , not as the a sober prim doctor he plays in the second.   We cheered them all to the echo.    If you’ve time for only one play,  Platonov is  funniest and The Seagull the most wrenching.  But all three are wonderful.

 
Box Office 020 7452 3000 through September. 7 more 3-day-plays on sale.
rating FIVE   5 Meece Rating

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YERMA Young Vic, SE1

A CAUTIONARY TALE FOR ALL TIMES AND NATIONS…

 
“Allow for a three-gin recovery period” advised a tweeter, during the previews of Simon Stone’s take on this perennial theme of baby-hunger leading to marital, mental and murderous disaster. Quite right. It is the most shattering night at the ever-intense Young Vic since the psychiatric-hospital Hamlet with Michael Sheen, which kept me away till four in the morning groping for comfort-reading – Jilly Cooper, Wodehouse, anything. But it is certainly brilliant, and for much of its length horribly, recognizably, contemporarily comic.

 

 

 
Billie Piper’s smile is the thing which stays in your head: magnetic or piteous, likeable or terrifying, She smiles a lot , in the big bare glass box where this terrible tale unfolds, hushed audience ranged either side as if in an arena, characters faintly reflecting so we seem to see them from two angles. But each time her smile is different. A larky, confident sunnily sexy grin as she romps with her Australian partner (Brendan Cowell) in their new house, hinting at a baby. Months, years, chapters of their lives go by, flashed up by surtitles as the smile becomes defiant, forced, satirically bitter , angry, and at last – after crumbling into terrible grief for the loss of someone never born – downright demented. Can’t take your eyes off her. Piper is one of the most intense and exciting creatures on any stage: could be Medea, Lady Macbeth, Richard III, King Lear himself.
It is simply the timeless sorrowful story of a woman wanting, and failing, to get pregnant. The Australian Simon Stone adapts and directs a 1934 play by Federico Lorca – assassinated by Fascist Spain 80 years ago this month. It’s a very free adaptation indeed : Stone gaily says he “vandalized” it.

 

 

 

Lorca’s Yerma was a childless woman whose obsessive longing for motherhood and descent into violence was fuelled by pressure and contempt from rural Catholic Spanish society. This sharply witty, slangily modern updating makes the community our own , sometimes even more censorious and nosey, online world: she’s a lifestyle confessional journalist who blogs (“no, I post posts”) at every step of her struggle, betraying unsayable feelings of resentment, sorrow, jealousy, dark hope that her own sister will miscarry, and frustrated contempt for her husband.

 

 

 
Modern realities dart through, though no one of them can explain the failure, which IVF (twelve cycles and more!) reveal to be in her own desperate body: there’s the husband’s business travels and porn habit, her own former abortion, her smoking and party lifestyle, even her own mother’s character. Scenes chop and move on as she is with the increasingly desperate (and beautifully played) Cowell, with a sexually free and easy colleague, with an ex=boyfriend and a dryly funny Maureen Beattie as her mother . They are interspersed with intense, whirling chants in blackness, as the glass box changes to a garden or a rainstorm. Some chorales are Spanish songs from Lorca’s period, once a poignant lullaby, one a grand deceptive Gloria as a real very new baby briefly appears. The terror of the last scenes (one is very grateful for the glass wall) is mitigated by the delicate, painful, truthful weaving of web of longing which destroys her. It is a tale for all ages.

 

 

box office 020 7922 2922 http://www.boxoffice@youngvic.org to 24 September
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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