Monthly Archives: January 2017

MURDER FOR TWO Watermill, Newbury

A DAFT DETECTIVE DOUBLE-ACT
Retro clutter round a piano: files, a hatstand, model house, gun, notebook, handcuffs. We are in the territory of smalltown detective fiction, a touch of the Poirots crossed with parodic Chandleresque film-noir ( this miniature musical was born off-Broadway, and won a Jefferson prize in Chicago). Add a dash of Marx brothers, a memory of Tom Lehrer and an overlay of vaudeville. The style is frantic: riffs and duet tricks on the piano and songs with memorably cod-desperate rhymes (“When you’re feeling stressy – a bit -er – S-o-S-y..”. Or “He said I was graceful, said I had a faceful / Of features, like eyebrows and eyes”).

 
Its creators Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair meld the musical outbreaks into the story with considerable skill and determinedly batshit silliness. All this is performed by two young men in pinstripe trousers and formal grey waistcoats. Ed MacArthur is an ambitious policeman yearning for detective glory, and Jeremy Legat, changing character sometimes second by second , is all the suspects. With reversible hat he is a bickering old couple accusing one another, with glasses on his nose the victim’s suspiciously undistressed wife , an ageing former showgirl. By crossing his arms and booming he becomes a needy psychiatrist, and with nothing but some elegantly skilled physical work a geeky girl doing a criminology PhD, a choir of boy scouts and a soulful, suspicious ballerina. They all have a motive, obviously, for killing a famous novelist.

 
There are jokes which would drag a laugh out of anyone, and a couple of stunning big numbers (Legat eventually gets green smoke, bubbles, sparkles and a Chicago leg up on the piano). But there’s a lot of mugging and broad self-awareness, and some, like my companion, won’t entirely take to it. But if you have a cheerful drink inside you and a yearning for some proper flippancy in this angst-loving age, it just about hits the spot.

 
The performers are superb, not least as pianists. MacArthur is earnestly geeky as the detective , and Legat, in his multiple fast-changing characters, walks the tricky line between being seriously annoying and dazzlingly brilliant. For me he stayed just the right side, and that in itself is a trick worth watching.

Luke Sheppard directs with Tom Atwood as musical director. It’s off to the former St James Theatre next, where Andrew Lloyd-Webber aims to curate and encourage just such musical flights.

 

box office 01635 46044 to 25 Feb
Then to: The Other Palace studio, SW1 2-18 March 0844 264 2121

Rating three   3 Meece Rating

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DIRTY GREAT LOVE STORY Arts Theatre, WC2

DAFT,  DIRTY,   BUT GREAT

 

I remember it at Edinburgh a few years ago : a sly, elegant witty refreshment on an arid Fringe day. Poet-actors Richard Marsh and Katie Bonna deployed “comic precision, heart and unflagging pace” , relating a rom-com of hookup, hostility and loving redemption in a genuinely original style which mixed naturalism with mock-heroic couplets. I never forgot Richard’s line, as mates at the stag night teased him mercilessly “Oooh…aaah…their cruel vowels stick into my bowels. Like owls . With trowels”.

 

 
At the Fringe, in a brisk fifty minutes the authors performed it themselves. Now, extended to 90 minutes, and still directed by Pia Furtado with the same neat energy, the players are Felix Scott, and Ayesha Antoine – who I remember as immense fun in Birmingham’s Tartuffe. They plunge (assisted by minimal props and artful lighting tricks) into an extended, sometimes a bit over-eventuful, tale of two years after a seriously drunken one-night hookup ( “Katie” doesn’t actually remember it, she says, so we are in the territory which today risks ending in court) .

 

 

Its ripening into love, by way of each finding unsatisfactory others, is artfully traced as the pair neatly morph into other characters in their lives: the honkingly posh girlfriend CC pairing up with Richard’s uncouth stag-night friend, first met putting table RESERVED signs on his trousers and hanging round his mate’s shoulders like “a reckless necklace”. Antoine’s rendering of CC’s line about her first meeting with him is priceless. “I thought, he’s Northern, he’s a pisshead, he’s got a Reserved sign hanging on his crotch so….yah!”. Scott has to morph not only into this glorious oaf. but into a Hooray-Henry boyfriend for Katie: his body language is masterly as he moves between the hesitant bespectacled nerd hero and the swaggering Etonian.

 
The story is in territory lately familiar from FLEABAG: guilt-free but loveless shags, liberated girls on the town who would really prefer love. This, though, gives equal weight to the young men who actually feel the same but lack the emotional courage to say so. It is warmer than Fleabag, and actually funnier too: not only in the spirited performances but in the glory of the language and images. Poor Katie is described by the yearning Richard as “flung like a sack of drunk spuds across the bed”, as he chivalrously refuses to take advantage this time but sets out to buy her breakfast in the gentrifying South London neighbourhood. “Free range eggs from hens that do yoga”.

 

 
It is good to see Marsh and Bonna’s creation grow. Better still, for fogeys like myself, to be among a young audience laughing, ruefully, at the uselessness of the empty hookup and illusive bravado; and at the triumphant, magnificent final speech. Richard at last proclaims the pleasure of realistic, clear-eyed, tolerant romance. She’s awful, she puked in his trousers trying to inflict an unwanted blow-job, but she’s perfect. He’s awkward, he’s not the cool Etonian rival, but he’s just exactly what she needs. God bless ‘em. Beautiful, funny, eloquently original.

 

BOX OFFICE 0207 836 8463 artstheatrewestend. co.uk to 18 March
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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RAISING MARTHA PARK THEATRE N4

RIBBIT! RIBBIT! FROGS, FOOLS, FABULOUS

Here’s a tonic for theis flat , glum season! Divinely tasteless, bracingly cynical , hootingly funny (jokes from subtle to silly) and directed with pacy intelligence. David Spicer has written what should be a breakthrough play, in a gorgeously black-hearted Ortonesque spirit. Michael Fentiman’s cast could not be better.

 

 

Jeff Rawle is a dim, self-confident whiskery rural Inspector telling us the story of his investigation into an animal rights outrage: the theft of a five-years-dead corpse (don’t worry, nice clean bones). Martha was the unregretted matriarch of a family frog farm, supplying specimens for dissection and experiment: as the show opens we see, digging overhead, the animalrighteous Jago (Joel Fry) and his wonderfully whiny dupe sidekick (Tom Bennett, increasingly funny as the show goes on).

 

 
But for me the greatest treats began with the dishevelled middle-aged son Gerry, who runs the frog farm in between glumly strumming a guitar unable to find a rhyme for “Linda” (who turns out to be, unseen, key to the plot). Gerry has actually given up frogs and secretly diversified into cannabis laced with hallucinogenic cane-toad venom : those creatures exotic stoners like to lick. A side-effect of his habit is the frequent arrival, seen only by him – and us, of course – of 6ft tall frogs with great prop heads and white doctors’ coats, threatening to vivisect Gerry with a lot of learned scientific discussion of whether he can feel pain. And the big treat is that Gerry is played by Stephen Boxer: an RSC veteran, who was stunning as Tyndale in Written on the Heart, as Petruchio, as the Archbishop in The Heresy of Love, as the NT’s Gloucester in Lear…

 

 

As so often, a classic class-act gives a broad , absurd and loopy part real power, subtlety and conviction, with sharp timing to which the others rise with matching glory. Julian Bleach is the apparently saner brother Roger, gradually himself driven manically nuts (one gets a strong sense of who Martha was, and how she is probably better company as a series of bones, flung around and brandished by the various camps) . Roger’s daughter Caro, who is not at all what she at first seems, is Gwyneth Keyworth.

 
They all play the accelerating chaos with farcical skill (the final fight is spectacular) and all are given the sort of lines you scribble down. Some are satirical: Clout the policeman pleased when the attackers are defined as terrorists because “You can get away with murder if you’re defending freedom..you are now a police budgetary priority!”. Some are magnificently silly (there’s a Yorick joke, oh yes). Everything skewered is a pleasure, including a splendid definition of the modern noir TV cop-hero: “All they have to do is drive around looking gloomy and arrest the first person who’s more psychologically damaged than they are”.

 

Me, after a rough day I feel psychologically healed by two hours of this rude black-hearted absurdity. It’s nearly as good as licking a cane toad.

 

box office 0207 870 6876 to 11 Feb
Rating four   4 Meece Rating

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STOAT HALL Seckford, Woodbridge and touring

MOCK TUDOR, RIOTOUS BUT NOT RUFF

 
It’s described by its creator Pat Whymark as “a sort of Tudor/Muppets mash-up with a respectful nod to Blackadder and DIY SOS”. To which I would add edges of panto, a soupçon of Python and a curtsey to Horrible Histories (though it’s far funnier). Whymark and Julian Harries have done many a Christmas lark for Eastern Angles, but this is my favourite since their (less-comic) Dick Turpin’s Last Ride at Bury St Edmunds.

 
It lards on the jokes with such generous recklessness that even if one genre leaves you cold, another will be along in mere seconds to disarm you. There are puns and puppet moments, telly jokes and anachronisms, sly politics, sent-up history, joke props, audience-baiting and plain surrealism. A sudden bluebird, bumblebee or (local reference) the demonic dog Black Shuck appear at random, and ravens on sticks gnaw the thatch.

 
So determinedly, gaily , its cast of five lurch energetically through a spoofolicious tale of sir ROGER de Polfrey, secret and reluctant Plantagenet heir of Richard III, struggling with castle rebuilding works (jokes about incompetent Masons go down very well in this vicinity). He is burdened with two daughters, a discontented wife and a grandmother descended from Chaucer who can only speak in Middle English (Violet Patton-Ryder, pleasingly posh). He is unaware of a secret society with ceremonial stoat headgear lurking in his undercroft, because to add to his troubles  Henry VIII announces a royal visit, through a camp Gerald The Herald who gets lustfully captured by his 6ft , uncouthly bearded basso-profundo chuckling daughter  Hedwig. Meanwhile both the jester-narrator and the sinister house apothecary, a recreational pathologist with many a gruesome prop, are in love with the other daughter, the fair Rosamund..

 
You get the idea. But the strength of Whymark’s production is that it is never allowed to plod. The only breathing spaces are some rather beautiful songs in the Renaissance manner, also the creator’s composition. And some brief comic musical interludes like the mad cook’ kazoo solo or the Apothecary’s “Should you die of anything – from haemhorroids to gout – I”ll lay you on table , and pull your innards out”. I tell you, the kids will love this. As I did.

 
Altogether, a pleasure. And the cast’s comic versatility in changing roles is pure Reduced-Shakespeare, straight-faced and backed by a stage manager (Penny Griffin) who one must presume has six or seven arms. Patrick Neyman, whether as apothecary, monarch, fierce Hedwig or the ghost of Richard III, is a particular treat, and Geri Allen’s transformation from mother to daughter is so baffling that I am sure I once saw the two onstage at the same time. I was driving, but have a weird hankering to see it again on its tour, with a couple of drinks inside me.

 
rating four  4 Meece Rating
http://www.easternangles.co.uk to 21 Jan then to  Peterborough

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THE KITE RUNNER Wyndham’s WC2

AN AFGHAN EPIC TO REMEMBER

 
Khaled Hosseini’s novel is an intimate epic: a flawed, damaged, remorseful man’s journey through thirty years of turbulent history. Amir is the privileged Pashtun son of a peaceful Afghanistan before its wars, USSR and US invasions, and the vicious Taleban years . The story, familiar now, traces his awkward growing-up into exile, immigrant struggles and college in California; from a cowardly childhood moment with a terrible consequence it culminates in his redemptive return thirty years later,. When, tellingly, he is roughly told by a guide (as many of the world’s upper-middles might well be) ‘You always were a tourist here ”.

 
It became a successful film, but Matthew Spangler’s play – far more arresting and vivid – was written before that.. This version under Giles Croft (jointly for Nottingham Playhouse and Liverpool Everyman) was honed to perfection by a substantial tour, and deserves all the attentive pin-drop silences , sighs and applause it meets in the West End. Atmosphere and honest emotion radiate outwards: there is a kind of urgency about it, a spur to meditations about class, tribalism, migration, fatherhood, and not least the spectrum of glories and horrors within Islam itself. The melodramatic almost fairytale elements of the story are grounded by an earthy credibility, moments of frightening brutality, and the fantastical but factual elements of modern global migration: Afghan flea-markets and ceremonial marriage-services flourishing in San Francisco in the age of MTV.

 
Spangler, of necessity with a vast rambling story, uses the adult Amir to narrate much of the story, dropping back into childhood or adolescent scenes. I was uneasy at first: plays-of-novels can be ruined this way, losing the show-don’t-tell energy of theatre. The treatment did Faulks’ Birdsong no favours. But Spangler uses it more carefully, and Ben Turner as Amir does both with skilful ease, becoming in turn the shy, bookish, culpably timid child self, the modernized US teenager , the young husband at last admitting his guilt, and the fully adult narrator remembering it all. It is a tough job, for Amir is often frankly despicable in his behaviour, right up to a wonderfully self-pitying outburst in the presence of the dignified, dying old Rahim. He holds on to sympathy though, rather thrillingly by his fingernails at times.

 
The first act is all set in the early 70’s childhood, and the friendship Amir betrays with the servant-boy Hassan: in which role the young Romanian West-End debutant Andrei Costin is quite superb. His is an even more tricky part because “goodness writes white”: the devotion and hurt forgiving sweetness of the servant boy must be made credible. In Costin, it is: every gesture both loving and subservient, channelling a forgotten and deeply un-modern kind of retainer’s loyalty. But all the supporting cast are strong: notably Nicholas Karimi who genuinely terrifies in both halves as the bully Assef , Emilio Doorgasingh bluff, macho, harsh and in one remarkable scene heroic as the father Baba; and Ezra Faroque Khan striking in an old-Afghanistan dignity as the servant Ali and later, the guide Farid.

 

 

Barney George’s set design – with William Simpson’s projection – is elegantly simple, trees and rocks and skyscrapers craggily suggested , great fans descending for middle-eastern interiors and the dove-like white innocent kites of childhood a curiously moving sight in themselves. If I could raise one quibble as it comes into London , it is that the lesser slope of Wyndham’s stall seats makes it frustrating when – naturalistic though it is – the director stages some important conversations with both characters seated on the floor. One tall fidgety head in front and you lose them. But story, strength, performance and sincerity deserve all honour.

 

box office 0844 482 5120   http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk to
rating: four  4 Meece Rating

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