Monthly Archives: November 2016

AFTER OCTOBER Finborough, SW10

THE 1930’S SPEAK TO US AGAIN…

 
It’s 1937, hard times for the just-managing family. The Monkhams are broke, dreading creditors and bailiffs. The great hope is that the son Clive, bashing at a keyboard and surrounded by crumpled rejects, is about to have a play in the West End, which will make him a fortune and solve everyone’s problems. Gaily his mother Rhoda plans it all: her daughters can quit of dead-end jobs and problematic romances, they can move to a bigger flat and even rescue the daily woman Mrs Batley from her foul son-in-law. Clive himself sees the coming success as his chance to marry Frances the depressed, grieving lodger and sail to Hollywood. She meanwhile is being courted by a dull lonely older man in order to have someone “all to herself”. Widowed mother Rhoda, remembering her glory days as a second-rate 1990s ingenue , just looks forward to paying off bills and debts, sorting out her children’s problems and making anything other than shepherd’s pie and treacle pudding (there’s a real one demolished on stage later).

 

 

Everything hangs on Clive – as he points out, the entire household’s future is built on belief in his genius. Chekhov-like, Rodney Ackland’s whole play is built on a web of hopes and dependences: a family and its outriders dreaming of the great escape. For a 1937 play it is perfect for now, for anecdotes of quick success fuel dreams of celebrity and fortune. Today it might be a freak Girl-on-The-Train success, a startup website, a viral Youtube that saves the family.

 

 
We recognize them all. There’s Adam Buchanan’s boyish, impatient writer Clive, facing his moment of truth with adolescent eagerness and despairs; the sisters, willowy table-dancer Lou (Peta Cornish) with her exotic, fed-up French husband, and Allegra Marland as Joan, sleeping with her testy, boozy boss. Sad Frances in the corner, bohemian delusional Marigold and even Oliver the starving, studiedly offensive but oddly irresistible poet who disturbs Clive’s peace with unsolicited criticism and takes his money (and treacle pudding) as a tribute to his “genius”: we know them all.

 

 

Kingpin of the play, though, is Ackland’s quite marvellous creation of Rhoda, the mother, given vivid life by Sasha Waddell. Determinedly soldiering on, fuelled by the Light Programme, breaking into dated dance routines between outbreaks of worry, she mothers the lot of them, a bustling scuttling beacon of hope and delusion as each daughter returns to the fold and the flat becomes ever more overcrowded. . We watch them through the approach of the crucial first night – and the cruel moments of reviews as they must test the mantra they must all live by .Clive expresses it: “It’s a law of nature that we shan’t look too far forward. Something to look forward to is something for one’s mind to stop at, like a wall in time, between ourselves and death…when the wall is reached it disappears and quickly up goes another wall. Even very old people erect little walls between themselves and death, even if it’s only tomorrow’s dinner”. Glorious, true, perennial.

 

 

These revivals of half-forgotten playwrights are gold dust. You learn about your country and its past, as well as about universal humanity. Such rediscoveries only occasionally happen in the West End or even the NT but on the fringes, perilously funded and fuelled largely by love and fascination (and here, backing by Stage One),  tiny theatres stage forgotten plays with casts of unmodernised lavishness (eleven of them! I haven’t even mentioned Josie Kidd’s touchingly funny Mrs Batley, or Andrew Cazanave Pin as Lou’s fed-up Frenchman).   But these well-made, entertaining, perceptive plays from the pre-John-Osborne era need reviving, just as we rediscover baking, or proper tailoring, or make do and mend.  The heroes of this archaeology are the Jermyn and  even more this theatre: the tiny, determined, ingenious and always classy Finborough.   So thanks for the Ackland. Not least because, with humour, he allows his poor lab-rats a prosaic glimmer of hope in the end. An Ibsen wannabe, or a lot of moderns, would likely have ended on a suicide or a bankruptcy.

 
box office 0844 847 1652 finboroughtheatre.co.uk to 22 Dec
rating four

4 Meece Rating

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NICE FISH Harold Pinter Theatre, SW1

HERE’S THE PLAICE TO BE…

 
Ah ,universal truths! We are all living on thin ice, knocking up inadequate shelters, fishing hopefully down holes into the chilly truth beneath, accepting that the past is over and the future somewhere else. Floating off on a floe, sometimes in lovely harmony singing a song of memory so tthe gun-happy hunters know not to shoot at us. But mainly we’re holding inconsequential conversations propped up with improbable factoids. We grow older, and decide at last just to “scratch a few petroglyphs to puzzle archaeologists in the future, and leave wanton destruction to the young”. Don’t expect coherence from human existence. “The old leave this life like a movie, muttering “I didn’t get it”.

 
If you are now backing away, defensively murmuring ‘Beckettian absurdism, oh for God’s sake it’s nearly Christmas!”, come back immediately. From the moment a tiny puppet fisherman appears under a grey sky on Todd Rosenthal’s set of a vast midWest midwinter icefield somewhere on the Great Lakes, a creased and ragged tale unfolds under skies from grey to gold to starry and is shot through with rich humour : at moments, you think of Morecambe and Wise scripts interfered with by Pete and Dud. Gasps and barks of laughter come when least expected, as Jim Lichtsheidl’s Erik, concentratedly morose, reflects on how a lost watch makes him realize that “nothing is the way I thought it was” . He is having to put up with his piscatorially uncommitted, wayward, gormlessly rambling friend Ron – Mark Rylance . There are incursions from a bureaucratic enforcement officer who thinks he is a saint and finds it difficult to steer when levitating; then from young Flo (Kayli Carter) and her splendidly oracular grandfather. I wanted to keep writing down lines but it is unwise to take your eyes off the cast, as fascinating things happen. Though even when glancing away you get lapidary reflections like the fact that “people being mostly water, a cold climate gives you a certain solidity”.

 
Last time Rylance played this theatre (when it was still The Comedy and soon after the immense JERUSALEM) it was in a bizarre piece called La Bete. I was one of the few who liked it, for the sheer madness and for our hero as Valere the clown “Who else could hold us, hysterical yet horrified, a compulsive deluded entertainer [with] an elfin, wounded, sensitive yet crazy expression I cannot erase from my retinas” Since then he has been a screen sensation, as Thomas Cromwell and as a taciturn Russian Spy acting Tom Hanks’ socks off with a single eyebrow. His last West End show was the glorious Globe transfer of Farinelli And The King , which had me burbling about him again “half-clown half-angel, those comic slanted eyebrows over a face oversensitive, visionary, quivering with the griefs of eternity and the music of the spheres.” Dear oh dear. Something must be done about this hero-worship of mine; but the man doesn’t do much to help me over it.
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For his return here is an event in a fabulously eccentric piece he has “stitched together” using the prose poetry of the American Louis Jenkins and a lot of improvisation. His wife Clare van Kampen directs, changing scenes and moments by the simple expedient of a total blackout (rather unnerving, given that on press night a huge swathe of West End was powerless and other shows cancelled). It is deep, it is melancholy, it is hilarious, it is all human life and doubt and oddity. It is 90 minutes straight, a lot of tickets go for £ 15, they give away a few free each night to people who arrive dressed as fish or ice-fishermen. So if you have a taste for absurdism, or comedy, or the random inconsequentiality of human life, you’ll fall for it . I did.

 
Box Office: 0844 871 7622 to 11 feb
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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THE CHILDREN Royal Court, SW1

GUEST CRITIC LUKE JONES CHEERS KIRKWOOD AT THE COURT

 

 

The Children are the focus of this play,  in their absence. Instead we have The Pensioners. Parents and a non-parent sinking beneath the expectation of and the responsibility to the younger generation.But not in a fluffy way. Their poor work laid the foundation for a disaster which killed actual people.

 

Meaning that there are, thankfully, no monologues, no distributional analysis on wealth and social mobility. No didactic speeches about responsibility or consequence. The Royal Court has un-Guardian’d itself a little and delivered something far punchier. The idle chat of unoccupied minds in the midst of life and death.

 

 

Lucy Kirkwood, who has only just surfaced from beneath the mountain of awards thrown at her for her hit Chimerica, makes quietly tragic work out of this lightly comic three-hander. A desperately basic cottage with no running water and intermittent electricity is the new home of two retired nuclear scientists. Robin and Hazel are simple, local folk it would seem. He makes wine and looks after cows, she does yoga: I’m sorry to say we all know a Robin and a Hazel. We might even have been born to them. They have a long, if not pleasantly vanilla, life ahead. But the arrival of an old friend/old flame could see them clock off earlier than expected.

 

 

Their sleepy village is actually an anxiously bereaved one: Kirkwood quite masterfully reveals through seemingly inconsequential chat that the nuclear plant they all worked in was the source of an incident. Many died, and those who lived were pushed aside to the edge of an exclusion zone. Sounds heavy. But it’s sieved out slowly with a gentle pace and a Victoria Wood vocabulary. Any talk of nuclear fusion, crumbling relationships or the feasibility of wind farms is pricked with gags about the Crystal Maze, tracker mortgages and the best shrubs for north-facing gardens. It’s properly comically conversational patter – a dream to listen to.

 

 

James Macdonald has directed an unfussy production which has the focus but lightness of touch of a television play. The three performances are incredibly clean, and natural. Francesca Annis, as the straighter and burdened outsider Rose, is an excellent elderly shadow of a once go-getting woman. Deborah Findlay, as the fretting Hazel, takes what could be incredibly sitcom and makes it genuine and satisfyingly charming. On the night Ron Cook let the side down slightly. He stood for 2 actual whole Earth minutes unable to remember lines. Twice. The blanks were only cut short by the cry of a stage prompt. You could feel this Chelsea audience scrunch into their seats, paralysed by that special pain you only get when something as juicy as this happens exactly at the time you’re not allowed to tweet. But we survived.

 

 

In the play there were some clear ‘ideas’ rattling around but it was far more interested in the characters than the message: humans not op-ed columns. What were the three to do now? not what should energy policy have been to prevent this? If you liked The Flick at the National, if you like hearing the sound of actual conversation instead of what David Hare wishes they’d said, then think of The Children.

 
Box Office 020 7565 5000
Until 14th January
Rating. Four.   4 Meece Rating

 

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THE SHAKESPEARE TRILOGY – Donmar at Kings Cross

O BRAVE NEW WORLD, IN BRAVE CAPTIVITY

 

Three years ago the Donmar’s all-woman Julius Caesar, set in prison, left me feeling that something genuinely new had happened: a revolution, a seismic shift in the possible. Gender was made irrelevant by the unforgettable performance of Harriet Walter as Brutus: pale, handsomely chiselled, androgynous and tragic, her bright, dangerous eyes gave a strung-out sense that beneath the utter control Caesar’s assassin is haunted, “sick of many griefs’. I wrote then: “if this extraordinary human being gets shoved back full-time into frocks it will be a shocking crime against theatre.”. I wanted to see her Iago, Leontes, Richard III, Macbeth, Lear – possibly in a mixed cast. Individuality transcended gender.

 
Since then we have had other women tackling the great male Shakespeare roles: Maxine Peake’s Hamlet, Glenda Jackson’s Lear. But now, following an equally successful Henry IV (both parts truncated into two sharp hours) Phyllida Lloyd brings both back, in this tented Donmar outstation which convinces all too easily as a prison gym. And the team add a third: The Tempest. So Walters is Brutus, Henry IV and Prospero; and on some courageous days you can see all three, with a lively versatile cast. That Storm Angus made me miss the Caesar with this largely different cast is a source of great annoyance: but as Walters’ Brutus, at least, it is imprinted on my memory so strongly never mind. The other two were tremendous.

 
The setting is more than a directorial conceit to roughen and de-gender female actors: the company worked with real prisoners and with their Clean Break theatre, some of whose members have been cast. Several actually studied to represent real inmates: Walters takes (watch their online video) powerful identification with an American woman lifer who has served 35 years after playing getaway driver in a political heist which – not directly through her – killed   two policemen.  Walters reports that this woman has found, over years, a remorseful private peace. The result of this play-within-a-play is an intriguing double vision: women sometimes wholly being men, sometimes revealing that they are women damaged by life, sometimes slyly aping male swagger and aggression. After all, a collection of rough-edged women of all ages can be as larky and prankish and teasing as any Cheapside revellers, as combative as soldiery, as quick to stir as a Roman mob.  Sex ceases to register, though one extraordinary musical ensemble in the Henry IV – led by Sheila Atim as Lady Percy lamenting Hotspur’s departure – is deeply womanly in its grief.

 
There are brusque interruptions from staff (very handy to make sense of the quick scene changes in The Tempest) , and occasional slang and seeming losses of cool by the “inmate” performers. Fights are subdued by officers, Falstaff suddenly can’t take the rejection of Prince Hal and disrupts the final scene, Brutus collapses sobbing when the ordeal is over. And when Falstaff’s gang turn too explicitly and brutally on Mistress Quickly she stops the scene in tears.

 

 

Apart from the centrality of Walters there are some terrific performances: notably Jade Anouka as a willing subservient Ariel and a red-hot, ferociously athletic Hotspur. Sophie Stanton is a swaggering Falstaff, the class joker and a fine grumpy Caliban; Clare Dunne a forthright lad of a Hal, Karen Dunbar an extraordinarily pitiable drunken Bardolph and a downtrodden Trinculo.

 

It is playful, poignant and electric in turns. The pathos of the tatty props – a tinfoil crown, an island made of rubbish on a string, a toddler chair Falstaff straps on as a cod crown – adds to the sense of urgency: these are desperate people, imprisoned both literally and mentally but escaping through the telling of a story and the imagining of other personalities. The storm in The Tempest is a prison riot, banging on doors, Prospero whirling in shouting frustration in her cell below: Miranda’s shocked “Oh that I have suffered with those that I saw suffer” takes on an urgent meaning as the rioters are returned behind the mesh. When Ariel is reminded of Sycorax she curls on the prison bed like an abused child. When she is set free it is to leave the prison, as do others: they thank Prospero as he/she settles once again, in the cell and poor Caliban goes round with the floor-polisher in the corridor beyond. When the two plays about political power end, an officer strides in for lock-up and for rulers and citizens alike it is “Line up! Lead out!” . The bruised faces lose their intensity and performance energy  to become once more immpassive, sullen social rejects. It hits you on the raw. Just as theatre does in real prisons.
http://www.donmaratkingscross.com 0844 815 7151 to 15 dec

Partners and sponsors; Delta, Bloomberg, Living InKing’s Cross
rating five

5 Meece Rating

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THE TEMPEST Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

O BRAVE NEW WORLD….

 

 

The talking-point is Ariel: a daring innovation for live theatre. Motion-capture technology sensors on Mark Quartley’s graceful body – skintight in an airy suit of cloudy blue muscle give him a double presence. So sometimes (not constantly) as he leaps and crouches and gestures a vast projected avatar of flame, nymph or terrifying harpy can fly or flare overhead. And indeed the production is visually beautiful: Stephen Brimson Lewis’ design and the Imaginarium studios update the mission of 17c masque to make us gasp and marvel. Framed in the ribs of a great wrecked hull we see marvellous things: even Prospero’s classical display of fertility spirits does not slow the final scenes, but shimmers with high operatic intensity (Paul Englishby’s music breaks your heart). Even if Iris and Ceres do, in their fantastical costumes, evoke a sudden curious memory of Edina and Patsy.
But never mind all that. For all the glory and ingenuity of spectacle, the point is is that Gregory Doran’s superlative production, with Simon Russell Beale as Prospero, is the gold standard: the Tempest against which others are compared for decades to come. For Doran the text must always yield up its secrets, not a word or phrase unconsidered, so that even the most familiar plays spring to life and startle under his direction.

 

 

This is my third Tempest this year alone, yet aspects of the play hit me afresh. I have never seen more clearly the delicacy of the scene where Antonio and Sebastian move from irritable shipwrecked banter to murderous conspiracy: it is like a telescoped Macbeth, with Tom Turner’s swaggering Sebastian tempted and Oscar Pierce, smaller in heart and stature, at moments jesting about murder like Richard III. Nor, for a moment, did I understand the reason for a brief comic moment when the herd of strange pale ragged spirits tease the labouring Caliban : Joe Dixon, huge , menacingly ungainly, primitive in pathos, always clutching a fish like a great twisted child with a comforter . But a moment later Caliban’s own line “for every trifle are they set upon me!” recounts his torments and in that deft flick of a touch, his inwardness is laid open. Some of the text’s strange meaning is illuminated simply by the physical: as Ariel sings Full Fathom Five the spirits become floating corpses between the old timbers, and often you glance aloft at the ragged beams and see Quartley’s graceful shape watching, vigilant, his spirit-face intent as he observes human behaviour. This haunting presence, and a sudden still, unplayful moment at his “Do you love me, Master?” add new depth to his final, shattering evocation of pity.

 
It is a deep production: full fathom five. Russell Beale’s Prospero is a marvel of thoughtful intelligence as one would expect: wound with tension from the opening, too lonely in his power for private peace. This is not a lordly magical ruler but an old man half- broken by long painful scholarship, burning resentment and the vengeful heart which is his own “thing of darkness” . Odd irascible paternal moments (SRB can do comedy, as we know) do not diminish a deeply human evocation of pain and need. Done with such feeling the play shakes the heart more deeply even than Lear, because of the electric moment when Ariel, inhuman, has been watching the suffering of the captives and confronts his master with the need to let his heart move : “Mine would sir, were I human!” . Beale roars, suddenly, terrifyingly: twelve years’ frustrated vengefulness escaping in broken breath. For he must forgive, break his staff and drown the book, and imagine no more harpies. This Prospero, in sudden painful gentleness, finds the reconciliation and redemption which Lear never does. I was shaken, close to tears, still held by it through a four hour drive home in the windy dark.
Ah well. If this earnestness puts you off, let me reassure you that there are some excellent laughs. Trinculo and Stephano are genuinely funny, their relationship mirroring the theme of dominance. And very fine jokes are the Miranda-firewood one and the “brave utensils”. Oh, see it for yourself.
box office 0844 800 1110 to 21 January
rating five    5 Meece Rating

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LA SOIREE Leicester Square, WC1

THEY’RE BACK.  OH YES.  INCLUDING URSULA. 

 
There comes a time in the year when the spirit yearns for a stiff drink and a whoop-along night in a mirrored tent, watching men in pinstriped suits and bowlers doing headstands on one another’s shoulders . Or a chap in underpants and ciré 6-inch stilettos somersaulting on a trapeze, a tousled minx in underwear juggling balls on her instep, and perhaps Captain Frodo the Norwegian contortionist manoeuvring his whole lanky, double-jointed body through two tennis rackets. Without the mesh, obviously. That would be just silly.

 

 

I have followed the modern-circus-burlesque-new-Variety casts of La Soiree – in one form, notably in Edinburgh, La Clique – over eight London years. It began operations a juggling-ball’s throw from here at the old Hippodrome. It has been on the South Bank and now its ornate, faux-decadent Spiegeltent returns to the heart of loucher London in Leicester Square. And every year I think “shall I bother?” and every year come back, and leave strangely contented.

 
It actually gets better: in recent years achieving ever more slickness and speed between acts (what kills this sort of night stone dead is over-padded ringmastering, so La Soirée has pretty much abolished announcements, moving swiftly from act to act over its two hours with the briefest of bar intervals. Theatrically this works brilliantly: pace, surprise and variety keep you going even if a particular act is not your bag. Or if you have seen it several times before. Or, in my case, if you have to watch a lot of Captain Frodo’s contortionism through your hands. It’s the bit with the swivelling elbow that I reject: as he says, he suffers (though he doesn’t seem to mind) from ‘muscular elastosis’, or doublejointedness. On the other hand, the man is so endearing, so brilliant in his patter, so comically fine-tuned in his absurdity and so ridiculously prodigal with the confetti he pulls out of his pants to assure us that it is all more joyful than freakish.

 

 
Frodo returns this year; so do the other vital headliners, the acrobatically astonishing “English Gentlemen”, Denis Lock and Hamish McCann , bowler-hatted, pinstriped , clutching the FT and an umbrella while they swoop from one impossible feat of strength and grace to the next and eventually strip to their Union Jack pants to the strains of Land of Hope and Glory. They are stars always: even more so since McCann returns with his pole-dance Singing in the Rain round a bendy lampost, and Denis Lock to get the standing ovation of the night with a stunningly beautiful brief lecture on bubbles, and a delicate feat of physics and aesthetics as he blows them into complex shapes and makes them spin and shine aloft. Curiously touching is his coda, for once in the evening free of irony, as he urges us all to be beautiful bubbles givieng joy inthe moment and accepting our fragility.

 

 

Who else? Jarred Dewey a newcomer , elegant in stilettos on the trapeze, trapeze, a singer from New Orleans rousing the audience and covering swift kit-changes with a razzmatazz anthems, an extraordinary young man called David Girard who rotates in a giant hamster-wheel, a pouting juggleress, and a couple from Vegas who are not quite as funny as they think, and whose skill is mainly spitting bits of chewed banana into one another’s mouths over quite long distances.

 

 

Oh, and Ursula Martinez, a sort of genius in the performance-art trade, vibrant with mischievous total authority, brings first her rude cod-Spanish lesson and a song about Brexit, and then rounds off the evening with what – at the age of fifty – she has informed a sorrowful nation is the last, absolutely the last, outing of her disappearing-red-hanky strip.   OMG. It’s like the ravens leaving the Tower. But you have until 8th  January to see that: and the rest. And to feel curiously the better for it.
Box office:
www.la-soiree.com
0207 492 9942   to 8 Jan.  NY Eve is a special…3 Meece Rating
rating four  (given it a Christmouse to mark the season

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AN INSPECTOR CALLS Playhouse, WC2

TRUTH, BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE 

 
Nearly 25 years on from its first outing at the National, Stephen Daldry’s interpretation of the old JB Priestley standard – not least due to Ian MacNeil’s design – is one of the most powerful stage metaphors ever. The smug Birling family are both elevated and nicely cramped – the physical reflecting the mental – in a bright-lit dolls-house perched above a misty, derelict city and its wandering urchins. The interrogation and revelations that rock them – and literally bring their house down – are staged like a ‘40s air raid, even down to the smoky, climactic moment when members collapse amid wreckage and are swathed in brown blankets by silent citizens.. Yet the house rises and brightens again in smugness, for a moment.

 
There was some astonishment in 1992 that Stephen Daldry, edgy new director, not only chose Priestley’s morality play but stripped away the fusty Edwardiana which had distanced its capitalist arrogance from our own. But it blew us away then, and does it again now, its force undimmed. Daldry, as we know from everything from Billy Elliott to Netflix’s The Crown, is at his best dealing with dramatic social and moral themes. And that this production is back to make a new generation gasp is splendid: I watched a matinee alongside at least two enormous school parties, blazers and hijabs all around me, swaggering or giggling in with squawks about “No interval? Whassat? Miss!”.

 
But its hundred minutes saw them quiet, breathingly absorbed and, more than once, gasping. Not bad for a 1912 play about a smug Edwardian family party visited by the artfully titled “Inspector Goole”, who gradually makes them all realize that each in turn – father, mother, son, daughter and her fiancé, has been – or may have been – complicit in driving a young woman to a horrible suicide.

 

 
Daldry and MacNeil’s sociali-justice metaphor of the rich house precariously aloft over a changing, struggling city could hardly be more fit for London 2016: the arrogant, petulant, grasping rich literally besieged by the reality of wider society and refusing the lessons of justice. “If we will not learn that lesson” says Goole, to the audience, “we will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish”. Behind him, in the cathartic moment, Mrs Birling is trying to polish her silverware, her husband blustering, only the younger spirits shaken into understanding the responsibility, long denied by old Birling, for “all having to look after each other like bees in a hive”.

 
Despite odd stylized moments when the fourth wall breaks down and we are told truths to our massed faces, the cast are vivid. Liam Brennan is an unusually emphatic Goole (well, unusually for me as I love the Alistair Sim film, but it works), Clive Francis blusters splendidly as Birling, Carmela Corbett moves Sheila from giggling bravura to horrified recognition, and Hamish Riddle is particularly startling as the high-pitchedly dissolute son Eric. The only performance moving towards caricature – and may I say, in a very good and apt way which got the school parties giggling with horror – is Barbara Marten as the matriarch, channelling a mixture of Lady Marjorie in Upstairs Downstairs and Steve Nallon doing his most emphatic version of mid-period Thatcher. Maggie-nificent.
box office 0844 871 7615 atgtickets.com
to 4 Feb
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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