Monthly Archives: March 2017

ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

ETERNITY WAS IN OUR LIPS AND EYES….
..and also, frankly, in the stalls. Some evenings, often here at the RSC, three and a half hours pass in a flash leaving you dazed, affected and tearfully glad to have been there. Not this. After the bracing Julius Caesar, this second in the Roman season picks up – very nicely – design details like he Forum’s pillars and the statue of a lion savaging a horse now high above. Robert Innes Hopkins also creates a credible Egypt alongside it, with Cleopatra’s stiflingly exotic interiors (dig that 7ft sacred cat!) and the pillars of Alexandria remind us pleasingly of our own Needle on the Embankment. It opens with a wild masked dance and Cleo and her man rising on a platform, still a-romping, in a tangle of sheets and flowing nightwear.
So we settle contentedly to the epic tale of disastrous cross-cultural love, of Antony’s dereliction of “Roman thoughts” and the Egyptian queen’s magnetism, defeat and demise. But goodness, Iqbal Khan’s production is slow! Keeping a long text is fine, respecting the complicated politics, betrayals and battles; so is it fine to let a production relax into a few dances, fights, and drinking-bouts.

 

 

But even without Antony’s famously protracted death it feels constipatedly slow (everyone else dies briskly after one good stab, but he lasts long enough to be triple-stabbed , manhandled around and hauled up the Monument in an unlikely manner without even dripping any blood). After James Corrigan’s mesmerically fascinating Mark Antony in the last play, we now have him relegated to being Agrippa while here the Roman lover is Antony Byrne: middle-aged, thickset and powerful as a ginger-bearded bull. He bellows like one too, at times, indeed is far better in rage than in love. The other Romans are good too – especially Andrew Woodall’s rough-spoken Enobarbus. Making him a bit geezerish was a good stroke, because it gave an extra poignancy to his descriptions of Cleopatra’s magnetic and exoticism “The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne..” . It is one of the few moments when you remember how lyrical the play is.
The weak spot is Cleopatra herself. Josette Simon is on her fifteenth RSC appearance, was a fine Rosaline and Isabella, is experienced, physically astonishing (tall, lithe, a fine mover). She is intelligent too, has talked of her research and reflection on the character and position of this ancient queen. An interviewer the other day, who can’t have yet seen her Cleopatra, talked of her “rare gift for stillness”.
Therefore having seen it, I can only point a trembling finger of bitter blame at the male director. Who must have lost his usual judgement and encouraged her to play it as a cross between a non-singing Eartha Kitt and everybody’s nightmare classmate, the Most Annoying Girl In The School. Oh, the writhing! The capering! The silly voices killing the lines and the meaning, the sexy, playful kittenishness which has to illustrate “O happy horse to bear the weight of Antony” by pretending to ride on Charmian. Oh, the self-absorbed one-note vamping!
In the interval, hoping to be fair, I canvassed some men as to whether this was indeed the kind of woman to whom they were drawn like moths to a flame. After a moment one said “Well… legs to die for, character to die OF”.
This hectic performance, and Byrne’s stumping solidity, means there is no credible chemistry between the lovers. Unless one makes the simple, possibly valid, assumption that every drama queen likes a thug and vice versa. In the second act, Antony finds a certain nobility (in between the bull-bellowing). And at last, at the very very last, Simon herself is allowed to deploy that gift for queenly stillness. And briefly it is moving. But after feeling one’s fingers itch for a venomous asp all evening, its arrival is, frankly, welcome.

 

box office rsc.org.uk to 9 Sept
rating three.   Not two, because I might be wrong about what some men fall in love with.  3 Meece Rating

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JULIUS CAESAR Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

SPQR: THE ROMAN SEASON STRIKES HOME WITH COLD STEEL

 
The trumpet sounds for the RSC’s Roman season, the mob is rowdily onstage, and the turbulent politics of 44 BC are reflected through the prism of Shakespeare’s 1599 England to throw light forward onto our own age . Dictatorships, depositions and painful realignments are always with us. Angus Jackson’s thoughtful production is visually classical: togas and breastplates, columns and flickering braziers and a tense atmospheric soundscape by Mira Calix and Carolyn Downing. But the careful, colloquial, muscular handling of the text by Jackson’s cast brings the play’s moralities and relationships harshly close, vivid and often thrilling. Too-famous lines emerge new, hard-edge and even shocking. Characters emerge individual and recognizable, and there is a timeless, sad grainy familiarity in the play’s political shape – conspiracy, assassination and messy, conflicted consequences.

 

Martin Hutson’s Cassius is particularly fascinating, catching the character’s lean hungry hysteria from the start as he begins to woo Alex Waldmann’s decent worried Brutus into the conspiracy gently , then explodes into passionate fury; his second-act tantrum in Brutus’ tent is nicely all of a piece with every appearance. Caesar himself, in this production, is made a more obvious swaggerer than in the last RSC production with Greg Hicks: Andrew Woodall giving him a rather Trumpish self-certainty from the start, which nicely justifies the chief conspirators’ anxiety. Brutus’ early hesitancy is sharply caught, not least in a particularly touching scene with his wife (the women don’t get much of a look-in in this play, but Hannah Morrish makes a striking Portia). Later, in the military scenes, Brutus’ bereaved despair is the more powerful for having glimpsed the reality of his marriage.

 

Yet most arresting of all is James Corrigan’s black-browed, faintly satanic Mark Antony . After the big brutal moment (there’s a sign outside warning us about the stabbing, as if we hadn’t guessed) Corrigan’s honest-john handshakes with the killers and faux humility before Brutus do little to prepare us for his surge of focused anger beside the corpse. As for the funeral oration, the pivot of the play, I have never heard its wickedly brilliant artfulness done with such cynical care. Corrigan never, for a minute, lets us be entirely certain of Mark Antony’s motives, and you have to love that. Brutus in comparison is a clear pool, his private griefs and resigned ending quietly moving.

 

 

The boy servant Lucius, by the way, meets such a sharp and unexpected ending in the brutality of the ending that the audience gasps in horror. Young Samuel Littell did the press night, a professional debut likeable and tuneful in the moody pre-battle scene. We were all more than relieved to see the little lad back at the curtain call.
box office rsc.org.uk to 9 Sept
rating four

4 Meece Rating

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FILTHY BUSINESS Hampstead, NW3

MOTHER COURAGE WITH A CRIMINAL TWIST

 

 

Yetta Solomon survived the Ukrainian pogroms when Cossacks raped and murdered her family. But they didn’t get her. Ten years old in 1919 she kicked, bit , scratched. “They set dogs on us. – I bark back. I bark louder!”. In London sweatshops as a refugee she skinned rats for the East End fur trade, scavenged rubber offcuts from tram tyres and carved shoe soles and bottle stoppers, raised her boys on a market stall.  Now she will do anything to keep the family rubber business going, and the family itself together.

 

 

And when I say she’ll do anything, I mean it.  No  spoilers, but Yetta’s magnificent croneish ruthlessness doesn’t stop at  jeering at her grandson’s dream of being a hairstylist (“Leo! Nat! We got a situation!”). Nor is it just a matter of double-crossing her feuding sons in a business deal, intimidating their wives , spilling lethal information true or false to get her way, felling a knifeman with a length of rubber tubing without breaking a sweat, or just barking “what are you, a moron?” down the phone to foam cushion  clients while marking the price up.. But that is beginners’ stuff: once you really get Yetta going, major criminality is simply no problem.  Not if it’s for the family! For their own good! because she knows best, how wouldn’t she, she’s a mother,? built up the business from a market stall, you gotta work work work, what do they know?

 
You could say that Ryan Craig’s salty, cunningly plotted and often unbearably funny family drama is tailor-made for Hampstead , with its hinterland of a long- established, doughty, opinionated, theatrically minded Jewish diaspora. And indeed it is a Jewish play par excellence, like a hypercharged Arnold Wesker with the pathos and respectfulness stripped out. Like, indeed, Craig’s  earlier The Holy Rosenbergs at the NT, with Henry Goodman as a patriarch. It captures that survivors’ vigour, that  intense family feeling laced with struggling fury as members try to make a dash for it.

 
But compared to matriarch Yetta, no male has a chance.  And played by Sara Keatelman, a compact furious dynamo in a black headscarf, she is breathtaking: whenever Kestelman is offstage, away from the stock-cluttered rubber business or a tense family meal, you hold your breath. Because you know Yetta will be back any minute to upturn everything and regain supremacy. It is, so far,the performance of the year in its humour ,headlong vigour, and a subtlety which allows us to see that it is fear and memory which drives the stubbornness and manipulation.

 

 
But this is not just a niche play, reaffirming the legendary Jewish business hearth.  Set between the mid-sixties and the booming Thatcher era it slyly becomes a state-of-England play: there’s a Nigerian illegal worker and her aggrieved husband, a neo-Nazi attack, infighting between immigrant generations (“Latvians don’t buy nothing, I hope they drown in their own soup”). The aftermath of WW2 is there too, and the way that ‘thirties survival morphed into ‘sixties ambition, and then ‘eighties insouciant greed. Leo, the favoured son (Dorian Lough) is sharp and thrawn, with slick hair and an eye for girls, and was a wartime hero; slower, angry Nat (Louis Hilyer) has retreated into choleric helplessness. Yetta found a way of keeping him home on the stall. The youngest generation are divided into those wholehearted about the business, and those who absolutely are not. The second act, in which a number of revelations excitingly unbuckle the strands of plot, see some spirited fights.

 
There are wonderful laughs, a tremendous coup de theatre involving fire, smoke and crashings (Hampstead loves a big stage moment). And that artful unbuckling of plots includes one line to remember for months. It comes, of course, from old Yetta in the 1980’s section. It just goes “I called in a favour…”. With a shrug.  What a woman.
Box office 020 7722 9301  www.hampsteadtheatre.com to 22 April
rating five   5 Meece Rating

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AN AMERICAN IN PARIS Dominion, W1

THEY GOT RHYTHM..OH YES

 

 

This is the big one, the Broadway spectacular, the one where rom-com meets top-flight ballets in more costumes than you can blink at; where dream-sequences explode into surreal immensity. Credited as “inspired by” the 1951 film with its immortal Gershwin songs and score, it follows the two struggling American artists and Paris socialite with showbiz dreams who are all in love with the same girl; but it stresses – as we more comfortably can today – the idea of a Paris and its people still shaken by years of Nazi occupation: the Jewish dancer Lise hidden by Henri’s family feeling a duty to marry him, Jerry trying to forget the day his buddy’s brains “spilled in my lap”, a massive power cut in the battered city interrupting the first joyful “I’ve got rhythm”, sudden street violence in the first number.

 

 

But the darknesses are only sporadic, and for the most part this is pure feel-fabulous Broadway . Though one couldn’t be prouder that both direction and the astonishing choreography – ballet and evocative modern and one rousing, crazy old-Hollywood tap number – lie in the hands (and feet) of our own Christopher Wheeldon of the Royal Ballet (and the NYC ballet too, but never mind that). His ability to use dance sequences for pure dramatic purpose and tension, and to break them with musical-theatre skill into moments of dialogue, is stunning, elegantly dovetailed. His gift (with the designer, and we’ll come to that) is also to lift realism into the craziest of fantasy. In the Galerie Lafayette Jerry’s love-dance goes wild, morphing the whole scene into the fantastic, but not forgetting the indignation of the shopwalkers. When Henri’s inept song-and-dance number in the jazz club turns into his glorious dream of Radio City Music Hall, it all happens before our eyes, the ensemble surging forward in tapping triumph. As for the final long ballet near the end, framed in the bright shapes of Rothko, Miro, Picasso which are echoed in the costumes, it is breathtaking.

 

 

Robert Fairchild of NYC ballet is Jerry, likeable in character and an astonishing dancer; opposite him our own Leanne Cope of the Royal Ballet as Lise, singing for the first time too, a miracle of grace. Hadyn Oakley’s Henri is fun (we are more than allowed to surmise that he is in fact gay, or as his Mum (Jane Asher, acidly funny) puts it has “romantic interests extending beyond the fairer sex”) . David Seadon-Young is a good moody Adam.

 

 

But what blows you away, scene after scene, is also the astonishing design: it’s the creation of Bob Crowley, with projection designs by 59 Productions and Natasha Katz’ lighting. Dreamily without fuss screens slide, rise and fall, swerve at angles to become Parisian streets, corners, alleys threatening or romantic; frames and blocks become paintings, bright Picasso colours; for Jerry and Lise a serene Seine unfolds; for backstage at the ballet we peer out at our seemingly mirrored conductor.. Everything is done to millimetre perfection, so that the simple rom-com tale winds through a world imbued with American romanticism, artistic yearning and Parisian elegance. It takes your breath away. Observe the diversity of mice, below…

 

Box Office: 02890 313 022

rating five

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LOVE IN IDLENESS Menier, SE1

BLUEBIRDS OVER DOVER, RATTIGAN ON A ROLL

 
Yesterday , on her hundredth birthday, Dame Vera Lynn had her face projected on the white cliffs of Dover and a flight of Spitfires was due overhead . OK, the planes were rained off, but the thought was there. So a beautifully apt night to open a glorious – and rare – wartime Terence Rattigan play . Newsreels were projected on a retro net veil , as a goodhearted, mischievous middle-aged love story disentangled itself amid the mess of wartime moralities, rationing and the rising Leftwing idealism of the Spirit of ’45. It was a night to sigh with nostalgia and forget Article 50. Especially with the peerless, the irresistible Eve Best at its heart: an actor who can turn on a sixpence from Chekhovian despair to frothing farce, express two conflicting emotions at once and still let us laugh.

 
We saw a version of this play in the Rattigan centenary, small-scale at the Jermyn under the original title Less Than Kind; the author against his better knowledge messed it about and frothed it up at the request of his stars, the Lunts, and it never got very far. Now director Trevor Nunn – whose Flare Path was so stunning a couple of years back – rebuilds it to stay closer to Rattigan’s emotional strength while keeping the jokes. For  it’s a comedy all right, often howlingly funny with the drop-dead timing of Best, Anthony Head and the rest; but it has that Rattigan tang, the streak of honest agony and conflicted love which shakes the heart.

 
The war is nearing its end, and Olivia, widow of a struggling dentist in Barons Court, has found luxury and love with a government minister – a Canadian industrialist who builds tanks, with a touch of Beaverbrook about him. But they have refrained from troubling prim wartime moralities with a divorce to neutralise his unfaithful wife. Now Olivia’s  son is back from evacuation to Canada after four years, and a prim little lefty he is too, gorgeously evoked by young Edward Bluemel and described by the minister – Anthony Head subtle, funny and heartbreaking by turns – as “a little moral gangster with an oedipus complex”. The lad torpedoes the love affair , carrying on like a cut-price Hamlet, and motherly love takes Olivia back to lonely suburban penury. Until the day when,  assisted by a glorious twist of social politics, her young excrescence grows up a bit.

 

 

Eve Best is a marvel, whether in real pain, resignation, maternal yearning or brittle gaiety (“There’s no situation in the world that can’t be passed off with small-talk!”). Anthony Head is her match, absolutely – and a joy it is to believe utterly in the intensity of a middle-aged romance. And as his wayward wife we have Helen George: as magically, vampishly appalling as the heart could desire and yet given, with brittle gaiety, a sort of dignity of her own. Rattigan forgives a lady in his heart, he really does.

 
It hasn’t the extreme emotional punch of The Deep Blue Sea or Flare Path, but it is in its way a piece of perfection, especially in this careful, loving production. And there are even moments when Rattigan accidentally predicts his own nemesis John Osborne: for the frightful son Michael does seem, in sly moments, like the prototype for Jimmy Porter. Except that Rattigan insists on him growing up a bit. Anyway, it’s another Menier gem. Hurrah.
box office 020 7378 1713 to 29 April
rating five   5 Meece Rating

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MY COUNTRY Dorfman, SE1 then touring

BREXIT MEANS… A BIT OF A DOG’S BREAKFAST

 
Rufus Norris of the National Theatre is to be applauded for taking on the post-referendum mood, and making an honest stab at understanding why it happened. Last June the theatre community and its followers tended more to utter cries of horror and pour torrents of frank calumny on the 52% : dupes or xenophobes, Ukippers and racists, OMG how could they? It was (and we need a properly funny Richard Bean or James Graham play about this) a bizarre moment in social history, when the left and the Fabian-minded liberals furiously scolded the northern unemployed and the neglected rural poor for disobeying an Etonian, Tory, prime minister and big business…

 
This is a verbatim piece, billed as a work-in-progress and oddly selective in its regions (East Anglia forgotten, as ever). Britannia, splendidly played as a worried matriarch by Penny Layden morphing into various politicians (she does a cracking Boris), has assembled representatives of each region – Scotland, Cymru, Northeast, Northwest, Midlands, Southwest – who speak the words gathered by researchers, irrespective of gender. They then fall – an hour into the 90 minutes – into some nicely furious argument and movement.

 
The beginning, though, is pretty static: they state their lives, a bit of childhoods sometimes, and utter their preoccupations before moving on to the Brexit issue. There are a few nice comments which are familiar enough – one seeing the EU as like an older sibling who’s on the dole but buys you presents with money you’ve contributed to anyway, others fretting about immigration, though with the usual failure to distinguish between global influx and actual EU citizens. Unfortunately some speakers, through this selection, end up with particular characteristics: a chippy Scot, resentful Midlander, a comically smug Southerner (who’d have guessed..).

 

 

There is a lot of “if I moved to their country I’d keep their rules” and a few stupidities. And here I became uneasy. It is not free from the same flaw that made the artistically brilliant London Road hard to watch for me (and a good few others). Verbatim interviews re-created by actors, however skilfully, create a distance. Since they are usually interviews with unpractised and unguarded speakers, it is fatally easy to seem to send them up. Three or four times in this show, a line raised a laugh from the knowing NT london-liberal audience. Yet when a medley of real recordings was played at the end the voices were less likely to be ludicrous. More hesitant, real, humble.

 
So there’s a discomfort in the sense that ill-phrased but sincere views are being, however subtly, mocked. One critic complained that the play’s fault was that the metropolitan liberal elite wasn’t represented. Trouble is, it was: it was out there in the stalls, sniggering.

 

 
But it was worth a try, and Carol Ann Duffy’s poetic moments, spoken by Layden (who really is very good) are powerful. “I am Britannia. I am your memory, your cathedrals, schools, pubs, hospitals…your rain. I sing your thousand musics” etc. And when it becomes purely theatrical, in a big final row, the vote moment, and the astonished huddle of people who realize that bloody hell, they’ve actually done it, broken the union… then, it is striking.

It goes off on tour round the country soon. Interesting to see what the real regions make of it. I see it gets as far east as Cambridge, but once again the mystery and identity of East Anglia remain unexplored by mainstream theatre.
Box office 020 7452 3000
rating two  Touring Mouse wideTouring Mouse wide

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STEPPING OUT Vaudeville, WC2

TOP HATS AND TALES

 

A nice gag in Richard Harris’ 1983 play comes in some desultory chat between the ladies of the tap-dancing class. Referring to a play one of them has recommended to another the victim snaps “We didn’t even understand the interval”.

 

No such problem faces audiences at the Vaudeville, as Maria Friedman’s loving redirection of this gentle classic comedy poses no questions of understanding. We merely spend a couple of hours (plus wholly comprehensible interval) in the company of seven women and a lone man , amateurishly learning tap at evening class with their teacher Mavis and a grumpy middle-aged pianist. It has conflict and a dénouement, because they are preparing for a display in which mere competence is the best that can be hoped for. But it doesn’t sizzle or shock. Its heartbeat is steady.

 

 
Which is fine. Anna-Jane Casey, the most distinguished of the dancers in life as well as the show, is standing in as Mavis the leader before Tamzin Outhwaite returns from injury on 1 April, and is excellent: not least in the second act when she loses her temper (and something else). She also dazzles in a brief solo moment under dreamy lights, reminding us that this is, like many evening-class teachers, an erstwhile professional who didn’t make it out of the chorus. Amanda Holden, whose initiative this Theatre Royal Bath production originally was, is perfect as Vera, the upmarket and interfering new member – I have been enjoying watching this performer’s funny-bones develop ever more beautifully from Shrek to Cinderella. And the ensemble give us a nice mixture of shapes, incompetences (until the big brilliant finale) and streaks of personal pain. Nicola Stephenson’s wounded, anxious DSS assistant Dorothy, Sandra Marvin’s rumbustious Rose with bust-bounce problems, and Lesley Vickerage as the tense troubled Andy are particularly good. The gruff , easily-offended Irving-Berlin fan and piano-basher Mrs Fraser is the splendid Judith Barker, who twice wins exit-rounds of applause. The lone man (how rarely one writes that) is Dominic Rowan as Geoffrey: a lonely City insurance man struggling manfully with cane , hat, box-step and female teasing.

 

 

The first act is unquestionably slow, for all that the peerless Friedman direction can do with it; the second picks up humour and, gradually and with a discretion baffling until you remember it is a 34 year old play, reveals that it is not only hoofing and body image that make life tricky for these women There are some bad marriages in the background, a termination, loneliness, money worries, and the hint of a really sinister husband-and-stepdaughter relationship. A more recent play would have hammered these home harder. But the sheer enjoyableness of this sweet-hearted play and the hopefulness of the final dance, make it a more than agreeable evening.

 

 

By the way my daughter, who is cleverer than me, points out that the nearest thing it reminds her of is the achingly hip “Circle Mirror Transformation” of the Royal Court’s outreach- East-London production a couple of years ago, where participants in a drama-therapy group gradually reveal themselves . So I looked up what I wrote about that play, and it was thus:
‘“”You expect a climax, a comeuppance dreadful but dramatically inevitable. But then, overcome by their own tastefulness, such plays unsportingly refuse to provide any such thing. They peter out in a thoughtful headshake. Just like real life.”

 

 

Well, at least Stepping out doesn’t peter out thoughtfully but rises to a double dose of barnstorming, top-hole good old fashioned tapping-up-a-storm. A footshake, not a headshake. So I”ll just about give it a fourth mouse and a hug.

 
Box Office: 0330 333 4814 to 17 June
rating four  3 Meece RatingMusicals Mouse width fixed

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