Monthly Archives: February 2017

THE GIRLS Phoenix, WC2

SWEET AS A NUT, SHARP AS A TACK

 

Helpless, really: I was putty in its hands. And I caught it a few days late, so no risk that the ecstatic giggles in the stalls or the standing ovation were contrived by artful first-night insiders. No, it is a happy thing: this musical about sadness, loss, betrayal and imperfect female bodies getting their kit off for charity. Happy because human, a loving tribute to rural England, friendship and ordinariness.

 
Fact is, It made me cry. Not just the at delicate sadness of the cancer story, as James Gaddas’ decent funny kind John declines through the first half , and Joanna Riding as his Annie – in a standout, starry, subtle performance – sings the most beautiful of wistful domestic laments in advance. It wasn’t even just when John finally rose hairless and unafraid from his wheelchair to climb out of sight over a set of Yorkshire Fells made – in a witty design by Robert Jones – entirely of kitchen cabinets.

 

 

No. The tears really were a tribute to the way that Tim Firth celebrates unpretending commonplace lives: ordinary loves, jokes, rivalries, pretensions, communities and families. He did it before, without needing to piggyback on a famous film (which of course is his too: Calendar Girls, based on the true story of a small WI embarking on a witty nude calendar). For a few years back Firth gave us at the Crucible in Sheffield a marvellous studio musical This Is My Family.  This bigger show – jointly with Gary Barlow – is recognizably of the same family in its elegiacally comic tone and the way it uses music to lift and launch a message of endurance and wry affection, because real life is “all about coping, fabulously, with terrible mistakes” . The lines are just as slyly surprising too: Cora the choirmistress remembering “I started my career as a mother behind Morrison’s with a blues guitarist” , and the outing of Celia the ex-air-hostess as having “increased the capacity of her overhead lockers – who cares how silicon is the valley?”.

 

 

Interestingly, my companion found the first half too slow, impatient for the eureka moment when the flirtiest of the women –  Claire Moore as Chris  – gets the calendar idea. But me I just enjoyed the build up , harmonic set-pieces and all: the Christmas float, the WI meeting, the flirting teenagers and the fete where “Every year on the first of May / England puts Englishness out on display / Showing how fun used to be/ Sometime around 1683..”

 
Yes, sharp enough. The second half takes us into the conflict and argument, with a few lovely cameos from the husbands about how rarely they actually see full wifely nudity “like in the film Jaws, you never see all of the shark”. And, of course there is the vigorously staged hilarity of the photo-session. It is a true ensemble, where every one of the cast shines: Riding is centrally remarkable, as is Moore, but there is some beautiful work from Debbie Chazen as reluctant Ruth, from Michele Dotrice’s doughty old Jessie and from the teenagers, especially Chloe May Jackson. Tim Firth himself directs, with Jos Houben credited for “comedy staging”, which pays off very nicely indeed.
But the main fact is, I did tend to keep on crying. It is an unusual fit for the unforgiving West End, but deserves a very good run indeed.
box office 0844 871 7629
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM Young Vic, SE1

GUEST CRITIC LUKE JONES GROPES FOR DIAMONDS IN THE MUD

 

Timothy Spall tells a good story – bear with me – about performing a Midsummer Night’s Dream at the National. Just like this Joe Hill-Gibbins production at the Young Vic, it was caked in mud; a great big sloppy heap of it that the cast had to wade through for every scene.

 

The story goes that Timothy Spall found a great big shit in it. Human. Don’t ask how he distinguished it from the mud. Smell, probably. But it’s fair to say it must have thrown him.   I bring this up because in this 2017 production I too found nothing but distraction in the mud.
(I’ll leave you to make the pile of crap gag)

 

I fear Hill-Gibbins is bored by text. His usual sweetener is random live video. Thankfully he’s shaken that  habit. But the stark, sludgey set the cast have to hobble through, the crowded staging (no one ever leaves), the interruptions of pointless movement and bad song make it hard to see the play for the direction.

 

The story of confused love in the forest is confused further.
Michael Gould and Anastasia Hille’s  Oberon/Theseus and Titania/Hippolyta, the tent-poles of the play, are limp. Their lines are delivered with such GCSE incomprehension, it makes the plot near-impossible to find.

 

 

The four toyed-with lovers land occasionally good comedic moments (thanks to Jemima Rooper’s Hermia and Anna Madeley’s Helena), especially in the 4-way fights. But the romance, the raw attraction and sex drive? Lost in the sludge. Any textual drama is skimmed through. Any additional gesture, flourish or diversion is indulged in. A particularly tuneful Fairy is bad for this.

 
But the saving grace of this 2 hour (no interval) poo party are the Mechanicals, and Leo Bill’s glorious Bottom. The sometimes wooden Shakespearean playfulness is fully whipped off the page in their performance , and brought to life with real comedic flair.  The frantic Am-Dram of Pyramus and Thisbe, complete with a topless obese man-lion, was bang on the money.  They all fully round out their lightly sketched roles, get big laughs and reach that blissful moment when Shakespearean dialogue turns from being the kind of thing at which your 15 year-old self glazed over, into something incredibly clear, rich and present.

 

 

But  brief sketches won’t save this production. Solidly comedic moments are adrift in a brown sea of almost unintelligible drama. When you find yourself inspecting the filthy state of the mirror or wincing at the muddying of white trousers, it’s clear the play is not gripping you.

 

 

Compare the (mostly) slack recitation of lines here to the ferociously intelligent Twelfth Night up the road at the National and you’ll see how high the bar is, if you want to pull off genuinely entertaining, dramatic and moving Shakespeare.  Muddying the waters with panto flourishes does nothing to hide basic failures in storytelling.

 
Box Office 020 7922 2922
Until 1st April

RATING two  2 meece rating

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TWELFTH NIGHT Olivier, SE1

THE WHIRLIGIG OF TIME AND BENDING OF GENDERS..
It’s a grand thing to be seduced and succumb. To suspect a director of vainly messing about with a Shakespeare play too close to your heart, updating it into trendily symbolic revolving triangles made of stairs, casting with deliberate perversity,  and rollicking irreverently with the bits you associate with the melancholy beauty of hopeless love (I met this play first at seventeen. Enough said). But the suspicion recedes inch by inch as you are led, by seemingly frivolous pathways, to the true right end of the play with all its meaning.  darkness and unanswerable mystery of pathos. T o the place where happy redemption is not for everyone, and the rain it raineth every day.
I should have trusted director Simon Godwin more, and expected honesty in his innovative take on the play. Admittedly, when I first heard that the NT was adding extra gender-bending to Shakespeare’s already complex line – girl-dressed-as-boy loves Count, who loves Olivia, who loves boy-girl and is sought by the deceived prim steward but settles for cross-dressed girl’s identical presumed-drowned male twin – I thought he might as well go all the way and turn drunk Uncle Toby and his mate into Auntie Tib and Edna Aguecheek. Why not?  But he’s simply made the proud steward Malvolio into Malvolia, with a lesbian passion for Lady Olivia. Which, come to think of it ,would have been even more interesting in the last Globe production because Olivia was actually Mark Rylance.

 
The transformation, even without buying in to the fashionable gender-bendy-agenda of the day with a programme note by Jack Monroe, works perfectly. Tamsin Greig’s Malvolia is very funny, well over the top for a long time, but tipping with full and terrible courage into the the darkness of her final humiliation: hard to watch, a bully turned victim whose collapse neatly exposes the nasty futility of all comeuppances. Her end is all wrecked dignity and unbearable grief; but we have seen her at first striding around at first in black culottes, with a Richard IIII coal-black fringed bob ike Claudia Winkelman gone to the dark side, giving it all she’s got of comic excess and prim rage.   It takes a lot to steal scenes from a breakdancing Tim McMullan as Sir Toby and Daniel Rigby’s fool Aguecheek in a  pink check suit and ginger man-bun, but Greig can do it. So indeed can Phoebe Fox’s unusually sprightly Olivia, especially when she lures poor Viola – in her Cesario disguise – into a home spa, proffering gold pool-boy trunks and hauling her prey into the hot tub where Viola panickingly disguises her breasts under the wet shirt.

 

 

I worried at first about Tamara Lawrance’s Viola (a very neat match for Daniel Ezra’s Sebastian, give or take a couple of inches) because to me Viola’s grief and unrequited love are poetic expressions of the greatest melancholy in the language. There is an unquenchable valiant merriment in Lawrance which seemed to belie it. But she charmed me before long, and her unbridled physical expressiveness is a joy, reminding you that she is supposed to be very young indeed. Adam Best’s Antonio – the other unfulfilled character – is impressive, the straightest of the characters. And as for Doon Mackichan’s Feste, another gender-bent casting, she prowls the stage in shorts and tights as one of the most effective Fools I have seen for years. Insolent, contemptuous, a sullen competent wit in her Feste makes deep sense of the “whirligig of time bringing in its revenges”. Sings wonderfully, too.

 

 

You could see it just for the treats: Tamsin Greig’s Malvolio crossgarter strip with revolving nipple-tassels, a top brawl in the Elephant tavern while a 7ft tinfoil drag queen belts out To Be Or Not To Be in torch-song style, the ridiculous duel, the drunks. But it adds up, as it should, to far more than that .

 

box office 020 7452 3000 to 13 May
shown in cinemas on NT Live 6 April
Rating four

4 Meece Rating

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THE SORROWS OF SATAN Tristan Bates Theatre, WC1

BACK TO FAUST PRINCIPLES

 

“I hope nobody misses / The moral in a show as short as this is..” . Marie Corelli, whose 1895 bestseller on the Faust theme inspired Luke Bateman and Michael Conley, may have a brief spin in her grave but emerge with a rueful grin. Her story is about a writer, Geoffrey Tempest, tempted by Satan in the person of his patron – the rich Italian Prince Lucio (Lucifer, geddit?) . The devil rather hopes to be turned down, so he can gain remission and not be bound longer by human weakness and greed. Bateman and Conley make the writer into an impoverished but self-important composer of a“serious” musical play on that very theme. He is a sort of proto-Sondheim without the wit or talent: the play has three characters plus the accompanist and every song sounding exactly the same, earnestly unmelodious and with splendidly dreadful witless lyrics.

 

 
So naturally, the task of Lucio is to ply him with money, fame, and promises of “the woman”, provided he turns his oeuvre into a sparkly 1920’s musical comedy played for laughs and backed by a line of “chorines” kicking stockinged legs.
It’s a neat idea, and fits this studio scale with cabaret slickness and plenty of in-jokes about producers, audiences, critics, cheap commercial populism and the pointlessness of making art that nobody wants. A major asset (and the main reason I tumbled off a two-plane journey just in time to get there) is Stefan Bednarzyk, the king of intelligent cabaret. He is musical director and Satan’s slave accompanist (apparently dumb, till he sings). He occasionally and delightfully accompanies Tempest’s more overblown emotional speeches with well-judged crashes and trills on the piano, and otherwise deploys some cracking fed-up reaction faces.

 
Simon Willmont is a bewildered, vain Tempest (though the gag about him throwing up in the wastepaper basket at Lucio’s jollier tunes is overdone), and “The Woman” is Claire-Marie Hall, who has to be three different girls in succession owing to Lucio’s impatient tendency to murder anyone who doesn’t co-operate. She does well, though is stuck with a few too many sub-Wildean-cum-suffragette observations about womanhood.

 

 

But the real joy is Dale Rapley as Lucio: middle-aged, thickset, cynical in demeanour, his is a more dangerous handsomeness than any hapless juvenile can eploy. He abandons the dreary young man’s score for his big number “Ta-ta-ta-ta-Tartarus! Youll think there’s no rules when you see our boys and ghouls…Tartarus! Sin and guilt are quite bizarre-to-us!”. So we howl and whistle as he flings himself round the stage, burly as a bouncer and camp as ninepence. Wouldn’t have missed that bit for the world. It’s the frothiest of Fausts.

 
Box Office 020 3841 6611 / http://www.TristanBatesTheatre.co.uk
to 25 March sponsor: Inland Homes
rating three   3 Meece Rating

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TRAVESTIES Apollo, WC1

FIVE GO ROARING UP WEST…

 
This is a transfer, and well deserved. My Menier review is below…and I stand proudly by every star of it. Five playful mice.
But below you will find an Apollo aftwerword….
Zurich, a century ago: the still centre of a wheel of war, neutral refuge of “spies, exiles, refugees, artists , writers , revolutionaries and radicals” .  James Joyce was there writing Ulysses;  Tristan Tzara was pioneering the redefinition of Art in Dada events in a nightclub,   breaking things and cutting up sonnets and having Concerts of Noise. The exiled Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was beavering in the library on his book on imperialism.   And there too  – mentioned in Ulysses  –  was the  insignificant figure of one Henry Carr, invalided from the trenches with a leg wound,   under protection of the British Consulate.  So Joyce – grumpily, we are told – did actually direct Carr in an am-dram performance of The Importance of Being Earnest.
Well!  What richer soup of personalities could be offered to the acrobatic mental, verbal and parodic skills of a younger Tom Stoppard?  He revives it now, with director Patrick Marber making absolutely the best of its vaudevillian surrealism (I am happy to say there is a stuffed beaver at the edge of the stage, wholly and correctly unexplained) . And the author muses that actually the dates don’t quite fit,  and he couldn’t face much research,  so the answer was “to filter the story through the recollections of a fantasising amnesiac”.

 

The result is a glorious intellectual spritzer,  with Carr at its centre in a magnificent,  defining, wittily commanding and endearing performance from Tom Hollander ( fresh from acting Tom Hiddleston off the screen in The Night Manager). As Carr in senility he frames the tale, a stooping querulous old mole in a  ratty brown dressing gown and long-dead straw boater:   in between times he and the hat reclaim their youth and the  Zurich days.    As old men and dreams will,   he reinterprets memory,   so that  all  the characters drift  in and out of  the war and of Wilde’s world together:  Lenin, Joyce, Tzara,  the play’s Gwendolyn and Cecily, Lenin’s Nadya  and a bolshevik butler (a saturnine Tim Wallers)  who maybe was actually the consul that Carr in reminiscence thinks he was…

 
Treasure the moments:   James Joyce suddenly Lady Bracknell, Clare Foster’s prim Leninist Cecily doing a bump-and-grind with a volume of dialectic over her crotch,;  sudden brief musical numbers decaying into nonsense as dreams do.  There’s    Hollander’s yearning  riff about a magnificent series of Savile Row trousers he ruined in the trenches;   his clipped gentlemanly confusion about the new age (“A socialist revolution ? You mean unaccompanied women smoking at the opera?”).   Cherish  Freddie Fox’s spiritedly arrogant Tzara,  decomposing Sonnet 18 in Joyce’s hat to woo Gwendolyn,  or the Irishman’s first appearance talking entirely in limericks and  the two girls’ Wildean row in rhyme.  Pause for   a curious, sharp solemn moment as Lenin and Nadya board the secret train which (it really did) smuggles them to Russia to join the revolution.

 
This is Stoppard the entertainer, constructor of glittering yet oddly logical follies, silly and serious at once, roaming in the half- imagined chaos that made modern Europe.  It’s a joyful stew of word and thought games, determined frivolity,white-hot belief and  terrible limericks.     But it is also studded with great arguments:  angry Marxist fervour oddly topical now in the age of Corbyn and Momentum,  and – inextricable from it  –  the argument about art:  whether it is or should be useful, its endurance and  the  importance of beauty to the human soul.   Art is championed by Carr and by Joyce,  and debunked sometimes by Lenin’s words  (real ones)  about its only use  being social critique,  and sometimes  by Tzara the dada-iste averring that the age of genius is past and “now we need vandals”.    See? Topical again, in the age of Serota, Saatchi,Emin, Hirst, the Turner Prize.
And a lovely hard hit ,  at a time when affluent artists have bewailed the Brexit vote and excoriated those who did it,  is Carr’s lucid observation that it’s like  having a chit from matron to avoid real work :  “To  be an artist at all is like living in Switzerland during a world war”.  Ouch!  It takes a deft playwright to kick himself in the crotch. Gotta love it.

Five mice   5 Meece Rating
And now at the Apollo, some thoughts…
It is interesting to meet this spellbinding cast and learnedly barmy script , now transposed, with a grandeur of exploded scenery, into the Apollo and offering a view from further off.

 
It does grow, and flourish, and gain space for a pair of crazy unexpected dances and a spectacular, oddly moving, evocation of Lenin’s train east.   Still a hock-and-seltzer reviver, though, still with that Stoppardian ability to make you feel  cleverer and better read than you actually are.

 
But what springs from it fresher’ on a second viewing, is how passionate are the arguments about what art is for: Fox as the Dadaist, challenged by Hollander’s practical ex soldier Henry,  speaks for today”s  self-satisfied new redefiners of the very word art: Joyce  by contrast berates him on behalf of art’s value outscoring the world of war and industry.
It shimmies and shimmers. Fills the big theatre. And the limericks are priceless.
If it lasts in the West end – I think it will – it does the London audience’s adventurousness and intelligence credit. But even more,  the credit of Marber’s production rests on the dishevelled, reminiscing, indignant Hollander. What a star!

Still five mice.  5 Meece Rating

Box office 0330 333 4809 to 29 April

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BEAU BRUMMEL an elegant madness – Jermyn St, SW1

AN AGED ELEGANCE

 

Beau Brummel is back in Jermyn Street, a century on from his decline, bankruptcy, royal disfavour and exile to a Calais convent madhouse. Down the road from his statue, the most restrained of fancies is strutting again, underground: a battered colossus of arrogant elegance and monochrome taste whose poses and gestures are restrainedly impeccable, whose stained asylum remnants call up again the the austere shaded greys and blacks against starched white linen which foreshadowed and pioneered modern male business suits (“one must tame the waistcoat!). He’s back, and you can’t take your eyes off him.

 
Ron Hutchinson’s play is a two-hander, and demands an immense amount from both Brummel and the disreputable valet Austin who attends him. Sean Brosnan and Richard Latham certainly deliver, holding together the play’s occasional longuers and weaknesses. Brosnan is tall and slender, his contemptuous-camel expression like Lear’s bearing an indelible mark of authority. He hauls obedience, even in his plunges into entire delusional dementia, from Latham’s fretful, half-cowed and half impatient terrier of a valet. It becomes clear just why he both dominated and then outraged the Prince of Wales , that tubby overdecorated walking Brighton-Pavilion of a man , with the fatally famous final quip “Who’s your fat friend, Albany?”.

 
Now that Prince is George IV, and his visit to France spurs Brummel’s delusion that he might call by their squalid room and the valet’s revolutionary ambition to shoot him from the balcony. It is a wonderfully elegant script, and Peter Craze’s production for the European Arts Company does do us a favour in reviving it. One is grateful for many lines – whether as light as “No man over twenty stone looks his best in pink knee-breeches” or as defiantly political as Brummel’s conviction that the mysteries of dress – of a finely-tied stock and a master glovemaker who does only thumbs – are, being personal, in the last analysis more important than the great tides of war and social unrest.

 
It would perhaps work better shorter, without an interval, but it sticks in your mind and haunts you twelve hours later with the image of senile defiance, remembered grace and crazy nobility. I can’t erase Brosnan’s gestures, arms outstretched for shirt, fingers turning a metre of fine linen into the perfection of a bow, or the way the valet’s scuttling exasperated obedience is dragged from him by the old man’s sheer force of personality.
It’s an oddity: but that is what small theatres like this do best. Can’t get it out of my head.

box office 020 7287 2875 or http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk
to 11 march
rating four    (slightly to my own surprise..it’s Brosnan…)

4 Meece Rating

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THE BOYS IN THE BAND Vaudeville, WC2

YOUNG, CONFLICTED AND GAY: VOICES FROM 1968

 
It feels dated now: the shrieking queenery, the preening Jules-and Sandy camp, the insider camaraderie. Oh and the angs: the misery of self-hating defiance. Young gay men today, especially from outside the bubble of modern metropolitan ease, may recognize some of it but for many, it will provoke not nostalgia but a shiver.

 

 

Matt Crowley’s 1968 play about a group of gay New Yorkers at a birthday party turned sour was revolutionary in its day, showing this coterie of young – and not-so-young – men in a network of friendship , love and conflicted feelings in the years before the first US gay pride marches and well before the spectre of AIDS both devastated and strengthened their community. Its very datedness makes it worth reviving. We need to acknowledge the continuing legacies of what social attitudes did to gay people.

 
It is also fascinating in the way Crowley tracks the spectrum of the men’s different characters and feelings from glorious (very entertaining) flippancy to despair. The widest trajectory is by Ian Hallard as Michael the host, preparing to celebrate the birthday of the acerbic Harold (Mark Gatiss, who appears towards the end of the first act). His friend Donald (Daniel Boys) is in therapy; Hank and Larry are a couple, and from a slightly older generation James Holmes as Emory in appalling shorts gives it all the extreme limp-wristed screaming-queen-cum-den-mother action we had half forgotten in the age of normalization.

 
The catalyst is Michael’s old roomate Alan, who turns up having had (we presume) a bust-up with his wife. The anxiety of Michael about this judgmental straight turning up at his party mounts, justifiably; Harold arrives late, a saturnine elder who they all regard with a certain nervous respect, and he is presented with a ridiculous dim bare-chested hunk in a cowboy hat as his “present” (Jack Derges is very funny in the part).

 
And so it collapses – two fight-directors are credited in Adam Penford’s production – and Michael’s fragility is exposed. The figure of Harold – Gatiss deploying a menacing, amused stillness seated upstage – is a mixture of cruelty and the harsh wisdom of resignation. When he rounds on Michael with a flat “You are a homosexual and you don’t want to be” it is harsh, but feels somehow necessary. And when Michael says in despair “If we could just not hate ourselves!” that cry from the past should crack open the hardest, nastiest, most intolerant heart.

 

box office 0845 505 8500 http://www.vaudevilletheatre.com to 18 Feb
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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