Monthly Archives: December 2016

ART Old Vic, SE1

SHOULD AULD ACQUAINTANCE FORGET THEMSELVES….

 

 

When Yasmina Reza won an Olivier for best comedy, she joked “I thought I had written a tragedy”. She did both: the French actor-novelist-playwright sees far enough into the cracks in human confidence to illuminate both absurdity and pathos. ART made her name internationally, and for Matthew Warchus to revive it at the end of a chippy 2016, just when we need to wince, laugh, and reflect on the perils and underlying disagreements in any friendship. Hang out together long enough in empty breeziness, and the odds are there will be dangerous things unsaid. Even if it isn’t about Brexit.

 

 

The beauty of this piece is that the unsayable things are well and truly said, by all three characters, as deep chasms open. The trigger is when Serge, a prosperous doctor, spends 100,000 euros on an apparently blank white painting. Except he says it isn’t white, it’s subtler than that, an important work by a contemporary artist. He shows it to Marc, an aero engineer as stubbornly wary of modernism and art-that-needs-explaining as our own dear Michael Gove (very topical, lucky Old Vic!). Marc laughs and says it is shit, and seems oddly affronted by Serge’s purchase; this opens an unexpected vein of vulnerability in Serge. The third of the old-pals trio, Yvan, tries to mediate between them . Disastrous. In between ripping one another apart they turn on Yvan, whose life is tricky enough already, between professional failure (“Does any man wake up every morning looking forward to selling expandable document wallets”) and a wedding involving warring stepmothers, an affronted mother and a demanding fiancée.

 
Too much drama is fed by romantic and marital shenanigans: the glory here is that Reza explores the too-little charted territory of commitment and jealousy among adult friends. We gasp when Marc accuses Serge of betraying him with his new art mates – “Never leave your friends unchaperoned!” and cannot but agree with the reported comment of the shrink “Dr Finkelzone” when Yvan tells the affronted pair that he has discussed them in therapy. It’s actually quite profound: “If I’m only who I am because you are who you are, then I’m not who I am”. Fink has a point there.

 

 
In a series of encounters a-deux or a-trois the men’s friendship ruptures and reshapes, partly with absurd art-talk about “the resonance of the monochromatic” and partly with personal comments about their attitudes, partners, and assumptions. Serge thinks he is about Art and modernity, Marc pretends to tradition and commonsense, albeit laced with obedience to his unseen Paula’s homeopathic prescriptions. Yvan has decided that life’s just about ‘Marriage, children, stationery, death. That’s it”. We learn that “Read Seneca” is a brilliantly dangerous thing to say to anyone, quite as bad as “You have no sense of humour”. I may try it.

 

It zings, it ricochets, it sends a shiver, the cast are perfection. Rufus Sewell as Serge has the stillness and the deadly strike of an affronted black mamba; Paul Ritter’s Marc subtly reveals below his bluff man-of-the-world air an edge of controlling megalomania; Tim Key as Yvan, trapped between them both, has real pain and pathos, knowing his chaotic life is a kind of necessary validation to his more successful mates. His cry “I just want to be your FRIEND!” got an audible “aaahh!” from the audience, as serious as a Miller or Tennessee Williams moment.

 

 

So good grief, it’s another five-mouse night for Warchus’ Old Vic. For this, on its 20th anniversary, sets up echoes in all of us. Indeed anyone who has had a long friendship blow up in their face might even , on leaving, feel a touch jealous of its sheer articulacy. Theatre is better than life sometimes; often, the kind of lines Reza gives these furious, vulnerable men are the sort that in real life one only mutters to oneself, walking angrily down the street after a Wrong Text…

 
box office 0844 8717628 to 18 feb http://www.oldvictheatre.com
Principal partner: Royal Bank of Canada
Rating five   5 Meece Rating

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St JOAN Donmar, WC1

THE MAID OF ORLEANS AND HER TORMENTORS

 

For fifteen minutes as the audience troops in Gemma Arterton, in chainmail and breastplate, kneels on a dais in rapt contemplation: mouthing prayers, prostrating herself before the Cross, offering up her sword, sober and serious. It is a silent prelude to a wordy play: and a 14th century meditation before Josie Rourke’s production takes us firmly into modern dress. Robert de Baudricourt yells at his Steward across a revolving glass boardroom table, while overhead the Bloomberg stock market screen reveals a disastrous shortage of eggs, millet and straw. It is a bold stroke to translate the medieval political manoeuvrings and clerical self-exculpations into grey-suited modernity, teasing us with the perennial nature of hypocrisy. George Bernard Shaw – who of course was writing about his own time too – would love it.

 

 

For it is the most political of plays. I spent three years as “L’Anglaise” in a convent school in Lille being blamed by classmates for burning Jeanne d’Arc, but was able to retort that there were a lot of wheeler-dealing French involved and that it was the Catholic Church – our lot, precursors of M. le Curé and his superiors – who handed her over as a heretic. And their precious Dauphin did nothing. At home we had a record dramatizing, verbatim, her trial, and I can still hear those brilliant “pert” retorts delivered with unshakeable faith and self-confidence, on why she dressed as a soldier “pour ma pudeur” and whether she was in a state of grace – “Si j’y suis, Dieu m’y garde! Si j’y suis pas, que Dieu m’’y mette!”. Magnificent. And both in Shaw’s text too.

 

His impassioned Fabian play was written when the torture of suffragettes was fresh in memory and the rise of the defiant “unwomanly woman” gaining traction. Being Shaw, he weaves in more than feminism: nationalism and its dangers, a forecast of “Protest-antism” against the interference of clerics with individual conscience, and a general reflection on the writhing frustrated helplessness of systems,traditions, chop-logic theology and theory and “proper procedure” in the face of fierce innocent simplicity.

 

 
It can be overbearingly wordy when Arterton’s gloriously straightforward, striding Joan is not onstage, radiating both determination and a real simplicity of girlish kindness. One might flag during the arguments within English, French and clerical boardroom meetings (the table is forever revolving) . But Rourke, with some cuts, keeps it moving along and gleefully lets us pick up every echo of modern preoccupations, from “rendition” to fanaticism (Mohammed gets a mention as being as dangerous as Joan) . The excuses for the distasteful necessity of burning a young woman alive are brilliantly done in the second half (“One gets used to it”). Hard not to think of the strategic discussions in three countries about Aleppo. And the moment when the trial judges descend to actual clerical fisticuffs is like the best sort of televised Select Committee.

 
There are roles to relish, aside from Arterton’s triumphant, touching and finally dramatic Joan. Fisayo Akinade as the Dauphin is wonderfully funny: camp, wet, cowardly; Rory Keenan as the (here American) Inquisitor is a chilling ancestor of all today’s Evangelical born-again homophobes. And Richard Cant gives a haunting, haggard fantaticism to de Stogumber, his hysteria decaying in final moments to traumatized brokenness. Memorable, powerful stuff.

 
box office 0844 871 7624 to February 2017
LIVE IN 700 CINEMAS ON 16 feb 2017 – http://www.ntlive.com for screens
Principal Sponsor Barclays.
Rating four  4 Meece Rating

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL Arts Theatre, WC1

FRESH AS PAINT,  THE OLD STORY

 

 

“Marley was dead…”. Oh how we need Dickens’ story every year. You can do it panto or earnest, screen or stage, Tommy Steele or Alistair Sim, Muppet or musical, camp or holy. It does the trick, even when you’re half-hoping it won’t. But the way Charles Dickens did it is simpler: alone on a stage, simply telling the story in those vivid, close-woven sentences. Sometimes a dry aside, sometimes a Fezziwiggian exuberance, a torrent of adjectives; sometimes earnest, amusing as a nightcap or sorrowful as a gravestone.

 
And now we are lucky because Simon Callow does it. I first saw this one-man show some years ago and have crept in to see it a few times since. It never fails. This setting, at the Arts, is particularly well staged, with a holly-free, unsentimental simplicity: a moving gauzey screen, a few projections of old London, some chairs which Callow moves around as he becomes the grim Scrooge “edging along the crooked paths of life” eschewing fellowship; then the cautiously alarmed or startled Scrooge, the repentantly delighted, redeemed one. He is Fezziwig too (a fine one-man evocation of a wild dancing party, Ed Balls watch out); he is the spirits, and the nephew, and the Cratchits, and all of us.

 
His script is conversational, feels contemporary, only a few smoothings-out of Victorian language needed. It carries you along. The moral of fellowship strikes home, of course, but in this age of irony so does the late line – gently simplified – in which Dickens reminds us that satire and cynicism always wither to inconsequence and are forgotten. The last word on Scrooge is the last word on every redemption:
“Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset. And knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms.  His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him”

 

Box office: 020 7836 8463, to January 7
rating four   4 Meece Rating
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CINDERELLA Palladium, W1

OH YES IT IS, IT REALLY IS…

 
Want to see Julian Clary in a feather headdress and spangles, looping the loop on a flying Vespa over the front stalls.? Course you do! Hungry for pumpkins dancing in shiny green toppers, quick-change unicorns, random pigs and a chorus of Salvation Army lassies led by Paul o’Grady rasping for England?  Yearn for retro variety, tastefully spiced with gags about Brexit, Trump, Simon Callow and Toblerone but only one of each? Naturally.
If you don’t, you are not in the panto zone, and as O’Grady’s ever alarming Lily Savage would put it, “shaddup,  if I wanted your opinion I’d slap it out of ya.”
For this really is the mother-lode of pantomime: heavy on stars but, more importantly, getting every ounce of hard work out of every one of them, mercilessly. Studded with headline acts, it never lets any of them do their shtick and walk away but melds them into plot and cooperation. It’s a treasure chest, a packed stockingful of silly treats.
 
The only shocking thing is that the Palladium hasn’t had a panto for nearly thirty years. Musicals clogged up its Christmases, among them Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat: a fact entertainingly acknowledged by the way Lee Mead’s beguilingly boyish Prince Charming breaks into Any Dream Will Do at the first opportunity, and follows it with another Lloyd Webber standard as soon as possible. Why not? It is, after all, ALW’s theatre now. But that is only one thread picked up, for one of the pleasures of this immensely classy , joyful production is its sly self-referential edge. It opens, once Amanda Holden’s rhyming Fairy Queen has stunned us by flying out over the stalls in a huge crinoline, with a paean to the Palladium itself, and an olde London song and dance about “Argyle street” – complete with organ grinder and neon-candy romping street life : co director and choreographer Andrew Wright ensures acrobatic excess throughout as one might fondly expect .

 

 

But beyond that, there are constant tributes to the theatre’s history and to older variety traditions. Paul Zerdin as Buttons is a very high-end, sharp-scripted and quick-witted vent act with his puppet Sam, and has several showstopping turns; Baron Hardup is Count Arthur Strong in a loud check suit and orange trilby, a figure straight out of the 1930s . There are even Tiller girls, briefly, a big tap number, and a tremendous rendering of the very old variety comic song “If I were not upon this stage..”. In which, remarkably, all the comic principals except O’Grady take part, with neat synchronicity which collapses into slapstick thumps and trouser-dropping; you won’t often see such ensemble work with Clary, Zerdin, Strong, Amanda Holden and Nigel Havers (who is sent up rotten throughout as Lord Chamberlain – as in “I’m the thinking woman’s crumpet” “No, nobody’s that hungry”).

 

As for slapstick, it is unusual to have a standard buffoon sequence – a neat falling-off-a-log trio with Zerdin’s puppet – not being delegated to ugly-sisters or comics, but carried out by Cinderella and Prince Charming, in mid-lovesong. Director Michael Harrison is really working them: O’Grady in the wicked-Baroness role, a Knightsbridge lady from Hell, looks magnificent, rasps and scorns us in the usual LIly Savag style but also does a good deal of interacting with Clary’s Dandini and with Cinderella. Clary is priceless as ever, innuendo kept just the right side of a wavering line (well, mainly) and again hopelessly corpses Havers who proffers food with “Ive got a spiralized courgette” and is told “blame your age for that”.

 

 

And of course it’s wonderful to look at, a crazy neon-and-candy spangled bouffant exaggeration,more costumes than you can count ; the pumpkin coach flies high with white horses pawing over Row F. And Cinderella is a delight: Natasha J. Barnes fresh from standing in as Funny Girl gets an affectionate applause when – glancingly, subtly, unemphatically – it is mentioned. But that’s another thing to relish: nothing is allowed to drag or overstate, even in nearly three hours. Glorious. Can only deny fifth mouse because a few too many gay sex jokes, boys..

box office 0844 811 0052 reallyusefultheatres.co.uk to 15 Jan
rating four

4 Meece Rating

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LOVE Dorfman, SE1

LIVES IN LIMBO
At the Connection at St Martin’s they say that none of us is more than two bad decisions away from the pavement. The street homeless we know, a little. Less plainly laid before us is the next step up: the hostel with small bare rooms off a common area, a squalid shared kitchenette and bathroom where different welfare “clients” may live for months on end before anything like a home is found. That is where we find Tharwa from Sudan averting her eyes from big shambling tattooed  Colin , and the fragile old mother for whom he proudly proclaims himself “carer”. And in a cramped bunk-room a recently evicted family of four shortly to be five: Dean, his very pregnant partner Emma, and their two children. A bearded Syrian lad wanders through from time to time, sometimes settling down to watch Billy Elliot on his phone while drinking orange juice from the carton.

 

 

The title is canny. Alexander Zeldin could have called it “Austerity” or just “Bastard Tory Benefit Cuts”. There is a substantial essay about recent welfare history in the programme. But by the title he wishes us to note the human relationships as valid and honourable in this hundred-minute, painfully naturalistic, low-key slice of life . Which, by the way, makes you nostalgic for the days when people talked of kitchen-sink drama: any of these poor souls would kill for a private sink in which nobody else washes old ladies’ hair with Fairy liquid, borrows their mug without permission and gets territorial about fridge shelves.

 
As a conscience-pricker, the NT’s Christmas feelbad offering, it is effective. When the magnificent Anna Calder-Marshall as the old mother finally staggers through the audience towards the stage death of the year, there was a standing ovation and I think it was mainly for her. But as drama it is pitched so low and slow, so anxious to convey the despair and boredom of this life by making us share it, that it is hard entirely to admire. Some muttered lines can barely be caught from halfway back in the stalls; more importantly, it is a very long time before we get even a hint of back-story, for which we hunger and thirst.
We do learn that Dean (Luke Clarke) and Emma (a dignified Janet Eluk) were evicted, and that in the stupid rigid system financially ‘sanctioned’ for missing a Jobcentre appointment on the day of eviction. This family provide the only clearly expressed narrative, and the children are finely played on press night by Yonatan Pelé Roodner and Emily Beacock, the latter providing a few laughs with her doggedly tuneless rehearsal of Away in a Manger and her keenness on decorating the miserable place with tinsel. The lad is just fed up, ending on the way to school with his determined parents as a surly dont-wannabe-shepherd with a teatowel on his head.
As to the devoted son Colin – Nick Holder – it is only in one significant late moment that we understand that beyond being merely thick and tactless he is in some way seriously emotionally damaged. Of the Sudanese lady we know little, until she suddenly livens up and chats in Arabic with the Syrian. But because this is basically an angry political play it would help immensely if it, or the programme, offered us imaginary social-workers’ notes on these people , a notion of the great complex engine which crushes them . We want to know exactly what systems failed them and for how long. Otherwise all we can do is echo Colin’s complaint that “the Council f—- you”.
Near the end actual crises happen: and indeed no woman three weeks off giving birth should have to mop up the double incontinence of an aged stranger in a common area where her children play and cross in neat school uniforms. But hell, we knew that. And we also know that people love one another, even when things are hard and horrible. But one longs for some politics, some admin, some acknowledgement of how vast the problems are and how we got here. Squalid misery at Christmas is easy to portray: economics and complexities less so.
box office 020 7452 3333 http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk to 10 Jan
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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HEDDA GABLER Lyttelton, SE1

A COLD-BURNING BRILLIANCE

 

 

A century ago Henrik Ibsen saw, with more clarity than the strait bourgeois world around him, that it wouldn’t do. Not the hypocrisies, not the politely ruthless mercantilism, and above all, not the constriction of women’s role. Females, he rightly perceived, were volatile high- explosive substances, likely to blow any minute and cause widespread damage. Of all his creations the strangest is Hedda Gabler: the bored and reluctant Mrs Tesman, a spirited General’s daughter reduced to respectable nullity and not liking it. Rarely has she been more alarming, yet more credible, than in Ruth Wilson’s stunning performance under Ivo van Hove.
 

I admit to a slight impatience at first with the modish directorial obsession to frame plays in boxes: van Hove’s View from the Bridge worked well with this same designer, Versweyveld , a degree of dark industrial starkness suiting it. Stone’s Yerma put Billie Piper in a glass case, Robert Icke got Bunny Christie to turn the Lyttelton into a series of sliding peepholes, and now we have the Tesmans’ apartment is a big bare white breezeblock box with few furnishings beyond a stripped-down piano and a white sofa. And, symbolically, no way out except through the auditorium. It is wingless, just like its heroine. Occasionally – notably at the start, when our heroine sits slumped ten minutes at her piano while the others discuss her – we have to accept that characters are probably in another part of the house entirely, and can’t hear each other.

 

 

But never mind. van Hove has done it again, as he did at the Young Vic with MIller, and the play keeps you gripped, helpless, uneasy and faintly horrified from the start. Some passages are like Pinter only with a proper plot; others suddenly violent, throat-catchingly so as Hedda’s sullen restlessness erupts into daemonic, primitive rage, wrecking, stapling dead flowers to the walls, burning, dancing, punching the air. There are refreshing departures from habit: the scholarly Tesman is not a starchy older man but Kyle Soller as a cool, fit American academic, who could be found anxiously manoeuvring towards secure tenure at any university today. Chukwudi Iwuji as the reformed wild man Lovborg (well, reformed until Hedda taunts him into alcoholic relapse) is not Byronic, the “vine leaves in his hair” being Hedda’s fantasy. Rather he has, in early scenes, a gravity which makes it credible that he had an earnest intellectual relationship with Mrs Elvsted. She is played by Sinéad Matthews: always a pleasure, deftly comedic, touching, and a perfect foil and victim in the manipulative bad-girl scenes with Hedda. Indeed when Hedda wheedles out facts about Lovborg it is pure rom-com,and none the worse for that: this is the ancestress of all disruptive women. Everything that happens must be about her, and her ruthlessness is beyond Medean because nobody has betrayed her but herself.

 

 

The modern look of it, the John Cage plinking piano background, contemporary ballads between scenes (including Hallelujah) and general absence of bustles and chintzy furniture, creates a risk. It puts all the more pressure on Ruth Wilson to express Hedda’s nihilistic, control-crazy behaviour as something universal and perennial. We are not given period cues which explain why she would have felt she had to marry Tesman without caring for him, and why her boredom and lack of work or purpose in life escalates into criminal delusionality and suicide. This challenge Wilson meets magnificently: we believe her. She is all real, all dangerous, from her first calculated insult to Aunt Juliana (Kate Duchene) and her studied flirtation with Brack (Rafe Spall plays him a great deal more violent and viciously macho than I have ever seen). The late General’s old pistols racked on the white wall are a threat, but no more than Wilson’s blazing intensity. Her rejection of pregnancy – “I will not make something that makes demands!” is pure Lady Macbeth. When Juliana says with dignity “I like company and I like to love” incomprehension is on Hedda’s face; when she descends towards cold madness the final chink of reason, of desire for a role and appreciation and love, is pitiful.

 

box office 020 7452 3333 http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk to 4 feb
rating four 4 Meece Rating

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THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS Park, N4

BETTER TO RANT IN HELL..

 
Magnificent in military jacket as he lectures the College of Tempters, then at ease in his study in fine brocade against a marvellous backdrop of skulls and bones and fire, Screwtape dictates his letters to a junior, his nephew Wormwood. Our hero is a senior in Hell, his unseen correspondent a rookie nephew, deployed as a guardian-devil tasked with tempting a youngish human, sabotaging his Christian conversion and undermining his virtues.

 

 

The older man’s monologue is accompanied not by any sign of the humans – messages are sent and received via a splendid fiery tube at the top of a ladder – but by the scaly-ragged, face-painted, lithe junior secretarial devil Toadpipe (Karen Eleanor Wight ), who skips, crawls, gibbers and occasionally, rather brilliantly, acts out in dumb-show the human characters Screwtape desribes as living around the patient. This is particularly fine during the riff about how, over centuries, Hell has managed to distract human males from women likely to produced happy healthy marriages, teaching them instead to admire impossible haughtiness, fainting feebleness, a boyish outline which no normal woman can keep ontor many years, or shapes so artificial that they both disappoint men and put pressure on women. Wight does them all in a few neat moves.

 

 

But as he stalks, this Screwtape lays it on hard, some of his delivery made almost unclear by emphasis: for too much of the time Max McLean rants, shouts, drawls, acting more like an overweening arrogant demagogue than an academic, thoughtful, experienced adviser. He needs to be more urbane, smoother, more nuanced : because that is the way C.S. Lewis wrote him in the famous 1941 book. It is notable that McLean is credited not only as performer but co-adaptor, founder of the US production company FPA and – crucially – director. I applaud the enterprise, but wish it a tougher hand on the performer.

 

 

That gave me a problem, though probably not universally shared, because I have known the book from childhood, and treasured the sharp elegant prose and Lewis’ deadly serious playfulness as he inhabits the mindset of an imagined devil: ravenous for souls, relishing human suffering but always haunted by the prospect of failure when one slips from Hell’s grip into the clear light of heaven, which to the underworld’s dark denizens is a blinding, suffocating, noxious horror. Screwtape is a great creation, a minatory, didactic senior uncle experienced in bringing about damnation. Which is defined, as always in Lewis’ theology (see The Great Divorce) as an individual’s gradual distancing him or herself from God and the virtues God enjoins.

 

 
But that is an issue of direction and tone, and the script, solid Lewis, is worth it. There is plenty of fine sharp psychology in Screwtape’s proposals: his definition of “the gluttony of delicacy” in which people eat moderately but fussily is apropos in the age of clean-eaters and faddish. Equally, his favourite way to ensure damnation is not provoking huge sudden crimes but creating mere lethargy and neglect of duty: since Satan hates pleasure as well as virtue, the best catch is not when you get a man carousing, but drinking alone and bored by a dying fire; or neglecting his duty not for fun or good reading but mere distraction that bores him (bring on the social media and the box-sets). And – in a rare updating Screwtape brandishes a big Madonna album – there is the startling message that the job of temptation is now largely devolved by hell to the example of “demagogues, dictators, and almost all screen and music stars”.

 

box office 0207 870 6876 to 7 Jan
Rating three   3 Meece Rating

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ALL THE ANGELS, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, SE1

THEATREKITTEN CHARLOTTE VALORI GETS THE CANDLELIT HOTS FOR HANDEL

Although Messiah was always planned for Easter, its glorious Hallelujahs have inveigled it into our Christmas canon of musical treats; and to gather together in winter to watch a theatrical exploration of the making of Messiah, by period-perfect candlelight, with the sumptuously polished choral execution of The Sixteen and a gorgeous consort of instruments, is definitely a treat. While some of Nick Drake’s writing can be irritating, with rather too many cheap laughs in the first half, All the Angels is a fascinating, moving examination of the power of music to inspire, to challenge, and to regenerate souls, as well as an unnerving glance at the strange intimacy between composer and singer engendered by the rehearsal process, which often unearths deep private pain to heighten the public effect of art.

A giggly Press Night audience took some time to settle into a serious appreciation of the piece, and of Drake’s compassionate vision of Handel, played with gruff emotion and nicely sour humour by David Horovitch. Horovitch’s tempestuous, vulnerable composer steadily gained command over stage and spectators alike. We come to love Handel for his cynical resignation to the present, as well as his generous hopes for the future of music, as he encourages the young Charles Burney (Lawrence Smith), and works tirelessly with the fragile Susannah Cibber (Kelly Price). Permanently terrorised by the spectre of the Italian prima donna Signora Avoglio (played with a comic Italian accent and sung with deliberately shrill tone by Lucy Peacock), Cibber battles with her own confidence as a singer, and faces her deeper fears about her moral authority in her audience’s eyes in the wake of a lurid sex scandal, in order to believe the mercy and redemption implicit in Handel’s music can extend to her.

Sean Campion displays assured versatility as he switches smoothly between Oirish ne’er do well Crazy Crow, the warm and optimistic Lord Cavendish, and Handel’s brittle, intense and peculiar librettist Charles Jennens, fishing hats or wigs from boxes on the manuscript-scattered stage. Drake seems to favour Crazy Crow as his play’s emotional crux, returning regularly to examine the effect of Handel’s music on this self-proclaimed lost soul; however, Crazy Crow relies on such an exhausted Irish trope that it’s all too coarse to hold real interest for long. The growing dynamic between Cibber and Handel, Cibber’s battles with herself, and Handel’s supreme and passionate commitment to his art, are what keep us thinking all the way home.

– CHARLOTTE VALORI

Four mice: 4 Meece Rating

At the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until Sunday 12 February 2017

Box office: 020 7401 9919

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WILD HONEY. Hampstead NW3

LUKE JONES BUZZES HAPPILY ROUND THE HONEY

 

Where Ivanov, The Seagull and Uncle Vanya mull, the youthfully fresh and fashionably unfinished Platonov rattles along like the TGV. Michael Frayn has reversioned the work into something incredibly lean. As train after train rolls through their lives, the action is stirred by those who want to escape on it, those trying to stop them and those almost run over by it. (i imagine life is much the same along the Southern Rail route.)

 

At the centre of this maelstrom of loud colonels, whiney artistic youths and idle landowners (all of whom are easily seducible in various combinations) is Chekov’s classic wistful, depressive genius. Platonov ; a Don Juan philosopher whose bounty of intellect and paucity of success seems to be exactly the brand of man the ladies like. The result is lovable fun with a thrillingly melancholic and fatalist streak. “The only stories that end happily are those that don’t have me in them.”

 
Frayn rightly notes that Chekov is almost all plot. Everything revolves around the hero and the four women vying for his attention. The twists (with a strong whiff of Noises Off) are housed in a branchy and breezy set of folding walls. Rob Howell’s 5-way dolls house opens and reveals every which way, producing the perfect home for panting arrivals and panicked fleeing.

 
Geoffrey Streatfield (as Platonov) ) has the right lightness of touch and lends genuine depth to the introspective seducer: occasionally he drifts into what is clearly a semi-camp schtick which I’ve seen him do too many times before; flappy hands, flung open arms, jaunty steps etc. But when the pressure of a steam-rolling plot comes chasing, he masterfully navigates it.

 

 

Also poking above the general good work of the cast is Justine Mitchell as Anna Petrovna, his more monied option of mistress. She’s hard as nails and brings an incredibly firm but funny strength to the madness. Some of the more fringe cast members were little more than funny sketches who made a decent job of witty lines, but those trusted with heft broadly carried it well.

 
Howard Davies’s production (picked up by Jonathan Kent after the former’s untimely death) is pitched exactly right as a quintessential farce with emotional meat. When Platonov stops to consider his ludicrous motives or question his many madcap options I feel the weight of it all. A farce with a thoughtful Hamlet at the centre is not to be sniffed at.

 

Box Office 020 7722 9301. Until 21st January
Rating. Four4 Meece Rating

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SHE LOVES ME Menier, SE1

O THE PRETTINESS, O THE JOKES…

 

 

Our heroine gets a job as sales clerk in Maraczek’s perfumery by selling a customer ia gorgeous hand-painted musical candy box. Which sums up the show: a decorative, ravishingly pretty container full of irresistible treats. Characters to love, properly funny jokes, soaring melodies and fabulously witty lyrics (it was a treat to see the lyricst himself, the aged Sheldon Harnick, joining the curtain call and saying, justifiably, that the little Menier’s is the best production of it he’s ever seen.)

 

 

Camp but sincere, mischievous and intelligent, light as air with a fluttering heart and a Christmassy conclusion, this romance of 1930’s Budapest is the tonic for the moment. It’s been around a few times: Miklos Laszlo’s play about sparring colleagues who are anonymous pen-pals inspired the films “The shop around the corner” and “You’ve got Mail” , and better than either this 1963 Broadway musical by Bock and Harnick. Matthew White directs, on its first UK outing since Stephen Mear did it with his own stunning choreography at Chichester. So I feared the dancing might not thrill the heart as much this time.

 
But with little space for big numbers Rebecca Howell delivers sharp wit instead, from the first moment when an arriving worker jumps over a passing postman. The bust-up sequence in the Cafe Imperiale is chokingly funny, daren’t take your eyes off it for a second; the accelerating craziness of the Christmas-shopping finale has the ensemble of eight half breaking their necks while wearing full 1950s rich- ladies-who-lunch finery , perms and feathered hats. As to the look of it, it isn’t often I look at the first line in my notebooka nd fine “O THE PRETTINESS!” in capitals the gilt, roses, grapes, lovebirds, shining bottles and barocco curlicues of old Mittel-Europa are enough to drive you straight onto the Eurostar for a taste of Budapest. Which would probably disappoint, compared to this dream.

 
But the point is that it is really, really funny: Scarlett Strallen as romantic, stroppy yet lovesick Amalia is perfection, all comic sincerity and vulnerable spirit. I want to see her “Where’s my shoe?” number every day for the rest of my life. Her lover Georg is Marc Umbers, just dislikeable enough at first; and as old Maraczek Les Dennis, newly liberated from being a reformed burglar with a heart-attack on Coronation Street, reminds us of what a poignantly likeable, gently funny stage performer he is.

 
But all the roles are taken perfectly, and all have their moment of glory in this peerlessly generous piece. 17 year old Callum Howells as Arpad the messenger-boy; nervous kindly Ladislav is Alastair Brookshaw; Cory English’s head waiter, surrounded by crashing silver trays; all in turn stop the show. And the lovely thing is that somehow this cast convince you, from the start, that they really are daily confreres, colleagues and friends. They make you want to apply for a job in a Budapest parfumerie half a century ago. And if that isn’t pure stage fantasy, what is?

 

box office 020 7378 1713 to 4 March

rating five   5 Meece Rating

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ONCE IN A LIFETIME Young Vic, SE1

HURRAH FOR HOLLYWOOD, AND LONG LIVE FOOLS

 
’Tis the season to be silly, and the Young Vic’s revival of a screwball 1930’s Hollywood satire hit the spot triumphantly with this theatre’s warm, responsive audience. It draws on two perennial daydreams: the first being that if you tell the boss he’s wrong his indignation will turn to wonder and he’ll promote you for fearlessness. The other is the even older folk-tale in which Foolish Jack accidentally does the right thing and wins the Princess and the fortune.

 

 

In Moss Hart and George Kaufman’s play it’s foolish George, played with nice naive indignation by John Marquez. He is one-third of a failing vaudeville troupe, with Jerry (Kevin Bishop) and the longsuffering May (Claudie Blakeley). The talkies have just begun so they hit on the idea of running an “elocution and speech culture” course for previously silent film stars. Once in Hollywood they encounter monsters like the overspangled, cawing showbiz-journalist Helen (Lucy Cohu), and Daniel Abelson hysterical with frustration as one of the latest mass “shipment” of playwrights hired by Glogauer and given nothing to do. A crazy workplace where a man is employed full time taking peoples names off their office doors and putting up new ones is led by the studio boss Mr Glogauer: a perfect shuffling, balding, amiably tyrannical plutocratic idiot of a part for Harry Enfield’s stage debut. George, a mooncalf in love with dim wannabe star Susan (Lizzy Connolly) , loses his temper, accidentally is promoted to total charge, and makes the wrong film without lights or plot. Which of course becomes a critical triumph for its originality. The reviews are beautifully written, classic emperor’s-new-clothes fawning on the obscurity and bad acting of George’s creation.

 

It’s a grand Christmas treat,  and there are some glorious moments especially in the second half.  The first takes time to warm up, often seeming like just a series of absurd sketches, though Richard Jones’ direction (and a lovely revolving segmented set by Hyemi Shin) keep it moving well enough. Enfield doesn’t have much to do in the first hour, though he is a treat to see shuffling through thickets of wannabes, complaining “wherever I go they ACT at me” or happily crying “That’s the way we do things out here – no time wasted on thinking!”.
Actually, though, most of that half and a good few moments in the second are stolen, with shameless comic brilliance, by Amanda Lawrence in a tight, worried pinkish hairdo as the receptionist Miss Leighton. She deploys a wonderful ladylike obstructiveness with people attempting appointments, and an anguished, spinsterish Glogauer-worship, following him around with a solid gold coffee mug . Her character could step straight in to most of the corporate workplaces any of us knows. And even a few doctors’ surgeries. Oh yes.

 

box office 020 7922 2922 to 14 Jan
Rating three  3 Meece Rating

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PETER PAN Olivier, SE1

PULLING THE FAIRY STRINGS IN AN URBAN NEVERLAND

 

Wendy is grown up now, earthbound , with her own child to tell about the wonder and danger of Neverland and Pan. She can’t leave the ground again, even with the “fairy string” which in Sally Cookson’s vivid, adventurous production has sent the cast flailing and somersaulting aloft, their riseS and swoops powered by counterweight cast members climbing up and down the bleak metal towers of a modern landscape at the side of the stage (one casualty already in rehearsals, Sophie Thompson). But as the show opens the grownup Wendy is beached because to fly “ You have to be young and innocent and heartless”.

 
Co-produced with the Bristol Old Vi,  Cookson’s production, like her remarkable Jane Eyre, breaks every rule of nostalgia: not spangly dust but “fairy string”, and Neverland a bleak urban bombsite where the lost boys street-dance. Hook captains a vast pirate SKIP, good pun there! Nana (Ekow Quartey) is not a dog but a super-frilled nurse who puts up with pretending to be a dog,which works very well. Though there is a real twenty-years-a-slave frisson when he/she is taken to be “chained up in the yard” by Mr Darling…

 
Yet in this modern, bare-and-uncompromising staging, just as she did in the Bronte tale on scaffolding Cookson drills down to a story’s emotional truth and oddness more sharply than with any amount of tights-and-nighties nostalgia . And by God, if any writer rewards mining for oddities J.M.Barrie does. Blighted in his own childhood by a mother’s grief for the brother who never grew up, preoccupied with the orphaned Davies boys, his yearning for childhood’s innocent heartlessness fascinates and disturbs.

 

 
Wendy is the heart of the tale, because being a girl she nurtures, speaks her mind, and sensibly grows up, even in childhood understanding the parental grief over the flapping curtain and the empty beds (always there is an echo of WW1 losses in good productions of the tale). But for Peter – here Paul Hilton is no child but endearingly adolescent, a defiant teddyboy, gawky in outgrown trousers – there is only that heartless airborne glee. So there was something satisfying in the Olivier in noticing how ,in moments which to us adults were movingly melancholy, a good few of the children laughed. And one moment when we adults all did, albeit ruefully, was when Wendy and Peter come down from a spectactular flying duet and she asks as they land “Peter, what are your true feelings for me?” . The poor lad’s expression is perfect as he mutters disgustedly “Tiger Lily does that!”. Damn women,always wanting commitment…

 

 

It is a thoroughly engaging and often spectacular, production, and the children present were attentive and pleased, a few starting , unprompted, the soft quick handclap to revive Saikat Ahamed’s lumbering, grumpily glossolalic drag-clown Tinkerbell with her light-up tiara . The crocodile is enormous, a thing of wonder made of old sheet metal and pipes- Toby Olié, of course – and odd bits of puppetry elsewhere have the inventive joyfulness which sends children home to play properly in imitation. Madeleine Worrall is a wonderful Wendy, forthrightly womanly, just edging into adult awareness but still capable of wild somersaulting fun aloft.

 

 

But the startling star of the show is Anna Francolini, who took over the Thompson role as Mrs Darling – frilled and feminine in the nursery, but doubling as a savage, obsessed, nightmare-mother, a dominatrix aflame with desperation: Captain Hook. Barrie apparently wanted this doubling, rather than having Mr Darling as Hook, and that fact alone could keep a Freudian busy for weeks. Francolini, a hook-fisted Medea in a tutu and bicorn hat, opens Act 2 as a terrifying she-Captain slouched wigless below decks, grotesque, smoking a fag and waiting to be laced into her corset by Smee. She mutters then howls: “I am brutality, I am battered, I am blood, I will break you Peter…”.
Properly terrifying, yet camp: what’s not to like?

 
box office 020 7452 3333 http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk to 4 feb
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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BURIED CHILD, Trafalgar Studios SW1A

IN WHICH LUKE JONES TRIES AND FAILS TO DISINTER DEEP TRUTHS

 

As in  all slow-burning plays there moments where you tune out for a second and ask yourself ‘is this a masterpiece or are they just all softly spoken?’ Is this drama reimagined or theatre deluded?

Sam Shepherd’s 1978 pulitzer prize-winning play centres around one unhinged Illinois family who have just about managed to let things settle. Then their grandson appears. Ed ‘Hollywood’ Harris is the patriarch Dodge, the Jim Royale of the midwest. Lolling around on the sofa, Harris quips about booze and complains about his wife with the whisky-warmth and elderly daze you imagined this old American farmer would. He is a solid, thoroughly watchable mess of a man.

Whirling around him, ‘babbling’ (as he puts it), and ploughing through the kind of half-relevant/half nonsense dialogue people have in dreams, are his wife (a vicious Christian played by Amy Madigan) and their two remaining sons. One of whom has one leg (“he’s a pushover”).

As they discuss absolutely nothing it dawned on me that this play had plenty it wanted to say, but no coherent means of doing so. Scott Elliott’s production tries to ramp up the mysticism as it becomes clear there is some bone-shuddering secret they’re all trying to keep from their eager grandson (a weak, single-note performance by film-favourite Jeremy Irvine) and his nosey girlfriend (Charlotte Hope). But the reveal is seen a mile off and when finally produced is laboured and uninteresting.

Having shunned the bar to read my programme like a good boy, I expected a devastating landscape of disenfranchised America. A rootless family in a wilting country. The self destruction inflicted on the ignored. What a freshly relevant evening in the theatre for patrons of 2016.

But the snake oil Sam Shepherd peddles is stodgy incoherence. It masks itself with empty dialogue suggestive of meaning, confusion in the place of actual thoughts and solid characters with inexplicably disturbed ones. If your play makes no sense, the excuse ‘well they’re all bonkers’ will only get you so far.

There are interesting moments around identity – in a slightly nightmarish moment, no one recognises the grandson and that sends him round the same loop as them. I get the broad aim, but it is in no sense original, insightful or entertaining.The only reprise is a charmingly haggard Ed Harris pining after liquor and quiet, and his lunatic evangelical wife snapping with discipline and fawning over the local priest.

 

Hearing some members of the audience chuckle, gasp and eventually rise to their feet in applause, it made me think of the art critics pranked into valuing IKEA framed posters as £2.5m masterpieces.

The hunt for the play which explains Donald Trump continues.

Box Office 0844 871 7627
Until 18th February.

2 meece rating

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THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL and… Wanamaker at Shakespeare’s Globe, SE1

THE BLEAK AND THE BOUNCY…RICE COOKS UP A CHRISTMAS PUD

 
Emma Rice’s warm, candelit take on Hans Christian Andersen, inventive and full-hearted as ever, raises a certain anxiety: I would love a lot of children to see it, but in the tiny Wanamaker it is hard to keep prices down. Still, up in the gallery you can look down through the chandeliers for twenty quid, and given the soaring cost of noisy pop-culture pantos perhaps some parents will bit the bullet, and decide on a more wistful taste of Christmas theatre.

 

The complete title is “THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL AND OTHER HAPPIER TALES” and with Joel Horwood, Rice has conflated three other tales with the central sadness of the child beggar who lights matches to warm herself and sees visions of Christmas comfort through the flame before dying on the icy pavement. The puppet child (beautifully expressive, with her handler Edie Edmundson) finds that lighting a match brings a Victorian vaudeville host – Olé Shuteye – with a troop of clumsily winsome acrobats and random props to enact the tales. Narration is in rhyming couples, sung or spoken, some of which are rather brilliant: when the crooked tailors, hipster-fashionista-prison-chic posers, demand wealth fro, the Emperor to make his non-existent clothes, they carol:
“Crush your crown jewels into fibre
And bring us a bottle of dolphin saliva”.
And yes, the Emperor is nude . Ish. Shuteye careers through the pit in a full flesh-coloured , rather loose onesie with cheerful stuffed fruit-and-two-veg with ‘real cashmere’ pubes dangling at the crotch. A bawdy touch wholly suitable to a Jacobean theatre…

 
The tale of Thumbelina – bombed out of a war zone, wandering the world alone and being rejected when she tries to join the insect city, is visually problematic at first, owing to her puppet’s diminutive size, but the Toad who captures her as a bride for his son is magnificently oversized and drew some adult gasps from the front row; and in The Princess and the Pea the piling of mattresses reaches a good 10ft and Akiya Henry, having flown down dramatically to woo the prince, blows him out furiously for daring to test her. HIs song resolves beautifully with the question “If you cause it yourself can you still call it pain?” All Stephen Warbeck’s music is gorgeous: guitar, mandolin, oud and bass overhead.

 

But the child is at the heart of it , and when Shuteye refuses to light her final match but snaps nervously “She lived happily ever after”, even the youngest child would know that it couldn’t be so. Too much realism has followed her. At last her immobile puppet is borne off , like a drowned migrant child, in a camouflage-clad soldier’s arms. And Ole himself doffs his vaudeville tails, stands homeless and ragged and is led off by a volunteer to a night shelter. Andersen would approve: his magic always had that sad tinge which children so readily recognize.

 
box office 0207 401 9919 to 22 Jan
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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THIS HOUSE Garrick , WC1

DIVISIONS…DIVISIONS…DIVISIONS….

 
The Parliamentary chaos of the 1970’s – hung parliaments, fragile alliances and lost divisions which predated the dawn of Mrs Thatcher – make for a tale hard to believe now . Even with 2016 Labour in chaos again and rebel-ridden Tories in precarious authority. James Graham wrote this astonishingly perceptive, funny, and thoughtful reconstruction of the mid-70s years, focused on the wrangling in the Whips’ offices and it was first seen in 2010 (Coalition years) in the NT’s little Cottesloe, with the front row seated on green Parliamentary benches. Even then, dazzled by young James Graham’s achievement, I wrote that it would last longer than the half-dozen chaotic years it depicted.

 

 
When it moved to the Olivier, and the Speaker’s Procession in full rig came up the central aisle, its meaning suddenly deepened because the pomp reminded us that these furious combatants were actually – gulp! – running a real country, with real people working, striking , living and dying in it. I said this to Nicholas Hytner who mused “Yes, it turned out to be a bigger play than we thought”. So now at last it reaches the West End: brave for a commercial theatre because it needs an enormous cast. Even with the doubling and trebling of numerous roles, there were sixteen players in the Garrick. Jeremy Herrin has them flowing nimbly around an evocative WEstminster stage (Big Ben overhead, a Speaker’s chair reappearing, an iron stair, offices: at one striking point lighting turns it all into the echoing medievalism of Westminster Hall and its angels). Some lucky audience are in the gallery or on benches; sometimes MPs are down by the front row or yelling from boxes.

 

 

It still bites, perhaps even more now that Labour is in disarray, the SNP ascendant, and Conservative rebels rolling up their sleeves to destabilize the old order still further. Graham has fun with the old 1970’s dualism, real, in the pre-Blair years: a Tory Chief Whip despising “Foul-mouthed, brutish, trade unionist thugs” , his Labour opponent jeering about “silver spoons in their mouths and rods up their arses”. It is more noticeable though how artfully he acknowledged the blurring which was already under way: Steffan Rhoddri’s Labour deputy chief whip listening to Wagner on his own, NAthaniel Parker’s engagingly smooth Weatherill on the other side finding Coronation Street entertaining, much to the horror of the peerlessly funny silver-fox ur-Tory Sir Humphrey Atkins ( Malcolm Sinclair). Mean while the new Chingford member (Tebbitt!) is winced at as “an egg and chips man” and ever more Labour members are not battered, noble old miners and steelworkers but thrusting young Blairish lawyers.

 

 

It’s fabulous drama: the rows, the desperate wooing of the “odds and sods” from the nations and regions, the almost incredible Stonehouse affair, the brief Lib-Lab pact with the preening David Steel, the furious row after the Heseltine mace incident when pairing was suspended and Labour had to wheel in desperately sick MPs to vote and cajole its drunks and recidivists, and a new mother had to come in and breastfeed her new baby, horrifying the prim old-boys’ club that Parliament once was. Capricious minorities and mavericks tormented the whips, one Labour member crossed the floor, 17 died; the supposed government lost no fewer than 57 divisions in the last Parliament.

 
Graham worked from facts and memoirs and an imagination of great wit and flexibility, catching the sometimes brutal tone of politics (“I’d better go and twist a few more Liberal arms” – “Don’t try too hard, they’re flimsy”.) But it is moving, too: these are – especially on the left, because Labour was so beleaguered – individuals wanting to do their best for the country. Phil Daniels as Bob with his ducktail hairdo and savage sweating catches the angry sincerity of the old left; Weatherill’s relationahip with his opposite number is, in a final moment of decency, touching. And ever in the background comes the reported rise of the member for Finchley and the dawn of her 1980’s. During which, of course, James Graham was born. Another salute to him for this fantastic exercise in pre-natal nostalgia. The small flaws – odd awkward doublings and some really dodgy Northern Irish accents – can’t knock off the fifth star. Honour to it.

 
box office 0844 482 9673 http://www.nimaxtheatres.com
rating five   5 Meece Rating

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