Monthly Archives: February 2017

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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SILVER LINING Rose, Kingston & touring

THE WATERS RISE ROUND  TOKSVIG ISLAND…

 

There’s a bit of conflicted-critic syndrome here. Sandi Toksvig is one of the most amiable wits of today: fun, sharp, humane, sensible, an advocate for our sex politically and personally. I am glad she is writing for the theatre (this is the second, after Bully Boy). and equally delighted that in defiance of fashion she chooses here to focus on older women, using five very fine actresses beyond their first youth not only to depict both the raw deal women in their generation often had, but to celebrate their continuing talents, strengths, vicissitudes, and humour.
The conflict, though,  is because when a play about a rarely-shown demographic has strong faults, it leave the whole idea open to hostile scoffers. And this one, which I saw at the final preview, has dismaying problems in the first half particularly. It is set in a ladies’ retirement home (rather like Noel Coward’s  Waiting In the Wings) in Gravesend, with a severe storm surge and heavy weather (great thunder effects). On the first floor awaiting rescue, are four women. There’s Gloria the former pub landlady, Sheila Reid in henna curls and leopardprint onesie; May (Maggie McCarthy) a retired BBC World Service wartime technician in a wheelchair, dryly mocking her conventional, irritatingly Christian sister June (Joanna Monro). and Maureen (Rachel Davies), once an actress and now slightly confused but surprisingly physical when she gets to beat up a young looter (Theo Toksvig-Stewart, who will now be able to say that his professional debut involved being rabbit-punched and kicked in the stomach thanks to his Mum).

 
They are all tremendous: so is a fifth woman who is wheeled in later from some forgotten room and identified only as “St Michael” by the label on her cardigan: Amanda Walker gets one of the most surreally moving monologues late on, describing the not unpleasant cloudiness of her form of dementia and hinting in odd gnomic asides that she was once pretty senior, possibly in the Civil Service. No complaints there.

 
The problem arises, though, when in the unnecessarily slow establishing first half (Rebecca Gatward directs) credibility starts to stretch too far: no staff are around, no rescue comes as the water rises, and when someone does turn up to make them – very desultorily – get their things together for evacuation, it is a caricature: an improbable, exaggerated teenage temp in lurid leggings (Keziah Joseph) who utters a monotone of squeaky-shouty unconvincing street-slang. Maybe we are meant to be seeing da yoof of today through the eyes of these old ladies. But it is never easy to evoke a very annoying person without annoying the audience – directors of Amadeus have struggled with this for years – and frankly, here it fails. And if we are meant to believe in the urgency of the rising water below, it goes on far, far too long.

 
I cheered up after the interval, and began to see how it could be a properly entertaining and thought-provoking play, because as the improbabilities grow more surreal – the women decide to build a raft onstage, using knowledge from their earlier lives – those improbabilities don’t matter because we’re moving towards Beckettland. And as we learn more of their hinterlands, the strengths of Davies, McCArthy, Monro, Reid and Walker can shine, relating lives never fully realized because of the way things were for women. There were bad or dull marriages, being gay before openness, being sidelined, bossed about, undervalued. There is a good passage too when the whining teenage Hope says that their generation fucked up the world especially for her, a young black woman who “voted Remain” though she appears to know nothing much about anything beyond herself. So June quietly recalls the 1952 smog, the deaths, and her burning urgency to get to work. Then settles down with a lead pencil, some wire and a loudspeaker to build a radio to get news of the storm.
So it picks up, and there’s a triumphant apocalyptic ending. But there’s peril in slowness of the first half – despite Toksvig’s good gags, which in the programme we are told were whittled down . It would help to put some back, prune a bit, and have a serious rethink of Hope’s lines. But on tour, who knows? Things grow. And the five women will be recognized, with rueful affection.

 

box office 0208 174 0090 to 12th then touring nationwide with ETT.ORG.UK \ Touring Mouse wide
RATING three   3 Meece Rating

 

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NORTHANGER ABBEY Theatre Royal, Bury st Edmunds, & touring

MORTIFICATION AND MERRIMENT ON TOUR    Touring Mouse wide

 

It was a young Jane Austen who wrote this wonderful squib of a novel, and its delight is in the absurdities and agonies of youth: credulous excitement at Gothic-medieval thrillers, a yearning for love and an agonizing propensity to embarrass yourself socially. Catherine Morland is as much a modern schoolgirl – thrilled to find new friends who might have brothers – as she is a Georgian Miss. As for her romantic ideas about abbeys and ruins, replace The Mysteries of Udolpho with the Twilight series or Game of Thrones and she is all around us.
Tim Luscombe, expert at Austen adaptations, understands this beautifully and Karen Simpson’s pared-down, economically elegant production has no qualms about keeping the period dress, for it is no barrier. The young director who recently said that whenever he sees period dress “I know it’s not about me” should go and see this: it absolutely is about all of us, or at least our youth. I hope many, many schools catch it on tour. I would have said “schoolgirls”, but my sixtysomething husband adored it too.

 

 

Another good reason to see it is Eva Feiler, emerging from small roles as a star to watch: she gives us a Catherine sweet, worried, thoughtful, foolishly romantic but with a basic solid-gold decency. She is never “off”, in every scene her face betraying the moment’s anguish or hope. Annabelle Terry is a delight, too, as snitty, manipulative Isabella Thorpe – the prototype Rules Girl – and doubles finely as a dim-lit scuttling hag housekeeper in the enactments of Udolpho’s gothic dreams. Joe Parker is an appropriately oafish John Thorpe, the “rattle” whose chatter causes Catherine so much discomfort and damage.
And as for Harry Livingstone’s Tilney he is not only drop-dead gorgeous but featly avoids the peril that stalks all Austen heroes: preachiness. He reproves Catherine for her mad suspicions, indeed, but Luscombe’s adaptation brings the barking General Tilney to the fore (Jonathan Hansler, entertainingly fierce) and we get satisfying indications that he, like his sister, is still recovering from an emotionally cowed childhood. And when he enacts for Catherine’s amusement a description of medieval-Abbey terror in all its “dreadful solemnity” it is glorious.

All very satisfying. And funny. And on tour.
01284 755127 to 11 February, then touring to 13 May: check on
https://www.theatreroyal.org/shows/northanger-abbey/

rating four   4 Meece Rating

Supported by St Edmundsbury Financial Services and Williams Charitable Trust

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SEX WITH STRANGERS Hampstead, NW3

THE LITERARY LIFE,  AS SHAGFEST

 

Those still wondering why on earth 42% of women voted for Donald Trump may feel enlightened by the way in which – in this successful American two-hander by Laura Eason – its heroine doesn’t dump a man whose wealth and business success actually depend on a braggart blog about shagging strange women and leaving them lying drunk int heir own vomit; a man to whose lips spring Trumpesque words like “fat dumb loser slut..shut her up, just stick your cock in her mouth” . Strange cattle, we women.

 
But I run ahead of myself. Our tale opens on a snowy night alone in a rented b & b in Michigan, where slender elegant Olivia (Emilia Fox) is mooching around in trackie-bottoms, gazing moodily at a typescript. Stomping in with a reservation comes Ethan,  a handsome, designer-stubbled oaf a few years her junior (Theo James). This  is a writers’ retreat, though not as we know them : over here your  chances are slim  of being  sexily  snowed in with  a buff, gym-honed pretty-thing like these, rather than  some corduroyed balding dishevelled and rumpled grump. Anyway, within minutes Ethan’s whining for wifi  abates, they discover a mutual literary hero and soon have the first of many shags (it’s OK, director Peter Dubois brings down a modest gauze curtain and blackout every time).

 
Olivia, a struggling teacher of writing courses, learns that Ethan is on the NYT bestseller list with a blog-based book about the girls he has pulled, with details. He, meanwhile, admires her upmarket my-inner-life novel , and actually scores his first grapple by quoting a line which, in the style of such wailing me-books, is “I feel like a ruined city”.

 
He, of course, is more like a profitable  drive-thru MacDonalds; but he wants to get into “significant” books, while she (burningly ambitious  beneath the showy self-doubt) wants success, and Serious Readers. She has been cruelly  missold as chick-lit with naff covers (it happens, this I know too well). So with his marketing savvy, agent connections and online buzz creation on one side, and her fine- writing cred in return, they need one another. Their transaction, not too honestly understood by themselves, shapes the rest of the play in the snow cabin and her apartment.

 

Both Fox and James are, I should say, are superbly credible in their roles: if there is a difficulty it is that the script gives them little scope to be likeable. If one wants the romance to bloom in the end (no spoilers) it is mainly, in the Irish phrase “so they don’t spoil two houses”. Luckily the performances are sharp enough to win a good few laughs at the pretensions and dishonesties, and especially at the gulf between mini-generations: his twentysomething Macbook Air next to her clunky old laptop.

 

Some interesting 21c themes wander through and are not developed: her ridiculous millennialist conviction that if you don’t make it early you never will, and also her terror of being trolled:  she wails that she can’t work out how to be “hard enough” to take mean remarks yet soft enough to retain her prized sensitivity.   His urging her to courage is genuinely interesting, but unexplored. Nor at any point, does the author question the no-strings anonymous hookup culture to which they both subscribe, or admit how new it is, culturally.  That would be altogether too daring for a hip writer.

 

 

It’s entertaining enough, though, and the Jonathan Fensom sets conventional but mood-perfect. Her chic apartment has a steel girder down the middle exactly like a fireman’s pole: I kept wanting the ghost of George Eliot (unpublished till over 40, wrote Middlemarch at 52) to slide down and urge Olivia to pull herself together , get some sensible shoes and think about someone else for a change.

 
Box office 020 7722 9301  www.hampsteadtheatre.com

rating three    3 Meece Rating

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