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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