Monthly Archives: December 2016

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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