Monthly Archives: April 2017

THE TREATMENT Almeida N1

BILIOUS BUT BRACING: THE METROPOLIS AND THE MOVIES

Simon may be from the wrong side of New York, a roughneck who ties his wife Anne to a chair and tapes her mouth for being “critical” of his neighbourhood. But he does have a way with words. Encountering a playwright on the sidewalk he snarls “I have no interest in the theatre…I will not pay good money to be told that the world is a heap of shit”.

Huzzah! That’s telling the Almeida set. We titter nervously,  and suddenly everything is great. For Martin Crimp, master of the sour perspective, may veer into surrealismos about blind cab drivers,  and be served by programme-notes speckled with tags from  Kafka, Baudrillard, Egon Schiele , Uncle Tom Cobbleivich and all. But  unlike some writers of the  dark ‘n furious  persuasion, Mr Crimp knows that his job is also to be entertaining.

And so he is, in a deliciously horrid fable about the  unfeeling urban jungle , coupled with the way  that  film and TV elites exploit  real people’s stories. Especially pretty  women’s.  Since half our screen entertainment today seems to involve either memories of rape and abuse, or fictions about it accompanied by the producers’ bragging about how they interviewed real victims,  this 1993  play is well worth a revival.  Especially under Lyndsey Turner’s crisp clear direction.

So Reader, I loved it. Right from the opening  scene where Jennifer the producer,  (a fabulously avid Indira Varma) is hearing Ann’s account of her ordeal and is thrilled by the detail of the gag being shiny-backed tape because it will catch the light better “the glint of it. That’s good”.

Within the general message about urban unease and dehumanisation – blurry , threatening windscreen cityscape  projections between starkly set scenes – lies a straightforward story. Anne’s abuse by a controlling husband is colonized by Jennifer and Andrew’s film idea. The project is assisted by the money and clout of the  actor – Gary Beadle having  hellish good fun as a cocky controlling megastar -and by a fading  playwright who has written an  Edward-Bondish screenplay , rather droolingly,  about a fading artist who gets invited to live with a young couple and watch them have elaborate sex (sure I’ve seen that play somewhere).

There are numerous lines so cleverly tacky that you almost whoop with recognising laughter (“John is attracting a great deal of money to this, Anne. Your new hotel. Your clothes…” reproves Jennifer when the subject protests). There is a truly horrid burst of violence from Simon in defence of his victim-wife’s stolen reality. So the play keeps you  – if not edified – well on edge.  And if you feel unease at Ann’s quiescence about her treatment and imprisonment, at least that too is challenged with shrill feminist disapproval by her screen avatar Nicky  (Ellora Torchia) “I think that kind of passivity is totally degrading…. This”  she cries,  pointing rudely at the actual Anne ” is not MY idea of Anne “.  It reminded me of that terrible film of Mansfield Park which made Fanny Price into a feisty, whipcracking heroine so as to feed the vanity of the star or the principles of the modern-minded director.

Thus the Crimpian shudders come at you in stereo from right and left alike. And the best definition yet of corruption is  there, albeit with the playwright’s voice channelled improbably through the normally blandish Andrew:  “Corruption has three stations. The first is the loss of innocence. The second is the desire to inflict that loss on others. The third is the need to instil in others that same desire”. Brrr.

Aisling Loftus is a superb Anne, sensitive to every flickering uncertainty and pragmatic realism, and the splendid Ian Gelder gives Webb all the pathos of the faded has-been writer.   But to be honest,  the palm this time goes to Matthew Needham as Simon. His dead-eyed, needy, savage realism genuinely scared me.

box office 0207 359 4404 to 10 June

Principal Partner: Aspen
rating four

4 Meece Rating

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ROMEO & JULIET Globe, SE1

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI SEES ANCIENT GRUDGE BREAK TO NEW MUTINY AT THE GLOBE

The recent spats at the Globe, between the now outgoing Artistic Director Emma Rice and The Powers That Be, have become uncomfortably public of late; they now seem to have spilled onto the stage, and regrettably, made a right mess. The question of sound effects, and sound equipment, was a bone of contention: the result is that Romeo and Juliet barely gets through 15 lines at a time without throbbing universal synths, yearning solo nondescript wailing, or one-size-fits-all dance music blasting (everything blasts, all the time) through the accursed /much-maligned (choose your corner) speakers. Indeed, at the Capulet ball, the entire company go into a fully choreographed version of YMCA, sung in full by Lord Capulet for no discernible reason whatsoever, bar allowing director Daniel Kramer to nick a key idea from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet: Romeo and Juliet glimpsing each other through partying crowds. There must be less painful ways to achieve it. Worse, each fight scene gets the same aforesaid piece of dance music. The stage reverberates, literally, with an anger which has nothing to do with this play, and perhaps everything to do with bruised egos behind the scenes.

The larger problem with this production, however, is the insincere treatment of the play itself; everything is brash and coarse, overacting is rife, and delivery is loud, shouty and often faux hip-hop: the effect is patronising and alienating, not accessible as presumably intended, provoking misplaced laughs from a giggly tourist audience. Whenever anyone doesn’t seem to understand their lines, Kramer resorts to meaningless erotic bouncing to distract us. Even the fight scenes get dancers – presumably, in case we get bored – and although the programme lauds the fetishisation of violence, the fight choreography wouldn’t convince a tranquilised toddler, as Tybalt points a gun and says “Bang!” at Mercutio. Kramer’s vision of Romeo and Juliet, like his doubtful Tristan und Isolde in 2016, is more vague associative muddle than pioneering synthesis: a loud, incoherent Romeo and Juliet for the emotionally numb ADHD generation. It’s thoroughly disappointing, entirely unmoving, and at times actual agony to witness.

Warheads hang overhead, everyone wears black and revels in facepaint located somewhere between clown makeup and A Clockwork Orange, the Prince is a Big Brother voiceover: all derivative clichés. You can’t tell the difference between Montagues and Capulets unless you know the play really well; if you do, you can play the confetti game. Kramer has decided to reapportion some lines, and splice scenes together: Shakespeare’s script is now confetti. So, Romeo gets the Prince’s final condemnatory speech at the end, which he declaims while executing all the parents, but before he dies. The wedding is spliced into the fight with Tybalt; Tybalt’s death is spliced into Juliet’s waiting soliloquy. This wouldn’t be so bad if it added tension, or illuminated any theme; but it doesn’t. It merely mauls and maims Shakespeare’s flow of ideas.

A very few actors salvage reasonable performances from Kramer’s car crash: Blythe Duff is a genuinely believable and affecting Nurse; Golda Rosheuvel makes a nice Mercutio, with beautiful diction; Kirsty Bushell’s Juliet is appealingly vulnerable in the main, though shrill at times, and not possibly 14. Biggest disasters are the Capulets: Martina Laird just plain irritating as an exceptionally gross, incoherent Lady Capulet, Gareth Snook permanently shouting as Lord Capulet, with the result that we care for neither of them (and mainly just want them off stage fast).

Until 9 July 2017

Box office: +44 (0)20 7902 1400

Rating: one 1 Meece Rating

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FORTY YEARS ON Chichester Festival Theatre

1918..1968..AND NOW.. ALAN BENNETT’S ENGLAND

 
In his 1994 diaries Alan Bennett described the funeral of a Dunkirk veteran in a village church. “crammed with the men who won the war. Young officers then, now in their sixties, good, solid, old-fashioned faces, never wavering, never doubting and singing their hearts out – “For all the Saints” “Immortal, Invisible”. It’s like Forty Years on – all that one loves and hates”.

 

 

This 1968 revue-style play, a tapestry of national memory and mockery, affectionate nostalgia and determined revolution , encapsulates exactly that conflict in the British heart. To revive it in a Brexit year, as we grasp more urgently the dangers of harking-back by the wrong people, is a canny if risky move by the theatre’s new leader Daniel Evans, who directs it himself with all the big-stage brio and playfulness he showed in Sheffield.

 
Risky, because it is hard to gauge how far the new generation will get its references to another era: schoolmasters uninhibited by childcare-correctness, Confirmation Classes, and legends like T.E.Lawrence and Sapper. On the other hand the WW1 centenary has re-sensitized us to both wars, so at least some history will resonate. For me, fifty years on the echoes were still all there. For newcomers , know that we become the parents and alumni watching, behind a huge posse of grey-uniformed boys, a frequently disrupted end of term play at imagined Sussex public-school, “Albion House”,: a metaphor for England itself. The retiring headmaster remembers starting on Armistice Day 1918, teaching boys who twenty years later fought in the second war. His successor-to-be the progressive Franklin has devised a series of scenes in which a posh 1940’s couple see out the second war with their old nanny in the basement of Claridge’s, remembering and lamenting their childhood Edwardian England which vanished in 1914, and their adult one which in 1945 was replaced by “a sergeant’s world, of the lay-by and the civic improvement scheme”.

 

 

So Franklin, Miss Nisbitt, Tempest and Matron and the boys zigzag through riotous sketches guyings of Wildean Edwardiana, Bloomsbury, John-Buchanesque “snobbery-with-violence”, and legendary 20c figures like Bertrand Russell and Lady Ottoline Morrell (strikingly depicted as a 10ft pantomime giantess by two puffing boys in a long frock). Between these, using diaries and poems, songs of the period and a tap-break and revealing political memoirs, the wars themselves are more soberly, movingly taken, still within the play’s odd beguiling structure. Bennett’s balance is artful: for every loopy tap-break, you get a Last Post from the gallery; for every mockery, a tribute. As the headmaster protests to Franklin “Memories are not shackles, they are garlands!”.

 
Except that, on the press night, that beloved line didn’t quite make it, for Richard Wilson, taking on at eighty the Headmaster’s very funny interventions and indignations, was not a hundred percent off-the-book, and made slightly more use than expected of his headmasterly stationery. Yet because he is representing just that stiff romantic old England a-dodder – it didn’t particularly matter. My own worry had been that I couldn’t able to shake off the ghost of Gielgud ’s gloriously querulous voice on the classic stage and radio version; but Wilson’s is a strong flavour himself, and I forgot it almost instantly. The odd fluff and fumble almost added to the charm.

 
And he is supported by not only a beautifully choreographed and flowingly vivid ensemble of boys, but by Alan Cox’s excellent Franklin and an utterly magnificent Jenny Galloway as Matron (ahh.. reminiscing about how fat legs didn’t put off men in her ATS wartime heyday). Lucy Briers is an nicely querulous Miss Nisbett and Danny Lee Wynter the master Tempest, particularly memorable as the pearl-draped, Wildean Aunt Cedelia in a bath-chair. Give that man more drag parts!

 

 

Lez Brotherston’s design excels itself too, with a full organ loft above and stone rolls of honour becoming screens with fragments of film or dates clarifying, as the play flits capriciously about, which year it is. So, even if it mystifies the young, it’s good to have it back after fifty years to watch it yearning back another fifty. The final For Sale notice on Albion House – five years before the 1973 vote – has a mischievous topicality, too:
“For Sale. A valuable site at the crossroads of the world. At present on offer to European clients. Outlying portions of the estate already disposed of to sitting tenants. Of some historical and period interest. Some alterations and improvements necessary”.
All that one loves and hates. God bless Alan Bennett.

 

box office 01243 781312
box.office@cft.org.uk    to 20 May

rating  Four   (the boys deserve no less)

4 Meece Rating

 

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OBSESSION Barbican, EC2

VAN HOVE, VISCONTI, AND OUR JUDE

 

London is  getting used to Ivo van Hove of Toneelgroep Amsterdam. But his tremendous A View from The Bridge (in a bleak arena)  and his striking NT Hedda (in a bleak white room) were written as plays: whereas one of his great tastes  as a director is adapting film screenplays. Not of the bubblegum family-fun variety, perish the thought: he best likes Visconti. Though the plays are made without re- watching or copying the original’s look and interpretation: rather his idea is to go right back to the screenplay and suck out the essence of it. If tonight is anything to go by, he is actually better with the comparative discipline enforced by stage plays.

 
But play or movie, the van Hove trademark fascination is with pressure. Put humans under increasing emotional stress and watch them wince, resist, dent and finally blow up: Eddie Carbone with a knife, Hedda with a gun. Here it’s Gino with a lorry,   plus a rubbish-hurling rage from his illicit lover Hanna. The various crises are accompanied by  exceedingly loud – and I fear rather clunkingly  obvious – music: Traviata for forbidden love, hard-rock for a brawl, French chanson for Hannah  throwing dustbins around, Woody Guthrie for Gino running away. Plus a lot of random sinister  angel choirs and some ominous silences. Especially early on, when distant cats miaow and Joseph (Gijs Scholten van Aschat) goes out and shoots them seven times. With all this racket, it is as well that the cast are heavily miked.

 
This tale, a  timeless one , requires the drifter Gino, an impoverished ex-soldier,  to be as the press release promises  “powerful and graceful as a puma”. So that’s a case for casting Jude Law, and puma-like indeed  he is.   Add a bored young wife in a rough roadhouse, a choleric older husband who takes Gino in to mend his lorry, and we are set for  passion and murder , remorse and disillusion and  classic betrayal and the whole stage suddenly turning into a lot of crashing waves of doom. Projections remind us of its film origins more than once: not least the remarkably sensual giant close-ups  of the skin-on-skin moments.

 
True to form, van Hove attempts no period or Italian  setting, but in the great bleak stage gives us a  block bar counter, a treadmill insert for Gino to keep trying to run away on, and a bath for Hannah to strip off into, and for the men to shave at in a combative manner. Oh, and  hanging overhead, ready to emit sparks, deafening engine noises and a cataclysmic oil leak , there’s a whole lorry engine which travels up and down on wires. Looming over them. The lorry is in the plot, but one darkly suspects that its suspension overhead has something symbolic to do with Sophoclean nemesis.
 
Halina Reijn is good as the tempestuous, changeably cautious love object, and van Aschat as Joseph convincingly patronises his wife and  belts out the Di Provenza bass aria from La Traviata shortly before getting lorry-murdered.   An  unusually helpful corpse, he then has to mop up the oil-leak mess while the guilty pair scrub one anothers’ beautiful backs. I think that’s symbolic too.

 
But to be honest, for all the aesthetics, the sustained Van-Hovery is as tiresome as it is inventive. So the 105-minute evening stands or falls on Jude Law alone. Fortunately, he is magnificent, and somehow snatches from the overweening directorial pretensions a genuinely felt performance of young Gino’s passion, poverty, damaged emotional confusion, baffled remorse and mournful yearning for the simplicities of the road. From his first seductive swaggering entrance, playing the mouth organ rather badly, to the obsessive need and rage and tragic grandeur of his fate Law moves through the slow, portentous interpretation like an actual human being, restrained and strong and heartfelt. Two of the mice are for him alone.

 

 

Box Office : http://www.barbican.org.uk to 20 may
then touring Vienna, Amsterdam, Luxembourg
NT Live in cinemas Thurs 11 May

rating  three 3 Meece Rating

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THE PHILANTHROPIST Trafalgar Studios SW1

A WINDOW ON AN IVORY TOWER…  

 
Full disclosure: I bought a ticket for an early preview, because press night was my husband’s birthday but I couldn’t resist checking out Christopher Hampton’s 1971 play. Not least because it is set in just the sort of donnish room that ‘60s university tutors used to inhabit, blissfully undisturbed by the outer world unless my peers were actually throwing bricks or chanting “Ho ho ho chi Minh” outside. Also Simon Callow directs, and his taste is always interesting.

 
So I won’t offer a star-rating, as there were six previews left and Mr Callow says it was work in progress. But it was fascinating: I hope younger audiences realize, amid the laughs, how accurately Hampton’s text catches the curious sterile élite manner of that academic cadre. Horribly funny still is their comic indifference to a larger world: barely acknowledging the murder of the entire Cabinet (creepy to have the Westminster terrorist attack just as it opened). Better still is the way he skewers the tricky epigrammatic showing-off of the dreadful star-writer Braham (Matt Berry). HE is the classic intolerable 1960s intellectual, going on about art being just like masturbation while admiring girls in long floaty frocks drape themselves at his feet. Hampton also catches the insouciant new sexual freedom brought on by the Pill: poor Philip the philologist, a man so agreeable he can’t teach Eng.Lit for fear of being critical, is the central character. Turning Moliere’s Le Misanthrope upside down, he is a man who can’t be abrasive: he’s a philologist because he just loves words, all of them! . He is in love with Celia (Charlotte Richie) but gets challenged to a bunk-up by the more voracious Araminta. The run-up to their unsatisfactory night occupies the first half; the aftermath the second.

 
It is in the second half that the play really begins to bite, though Callow’s cast keep it tripping along (especially Simon Bird, who is rather wonderful as the innocent Philip, indicating subtly how much of his almost inhuman niceness is fuelled by fear). Lily Cole as the vamptress Araminta, with a torrent of hair and endless white hypnotic thighs, is oddly touching: her anger when Philip admits he isn’t, er, actually attracted to her rings eerily true. “Needing to be needed” is a mark of the most voracious of our sex, or certainly was in the treacherous 1960s. Actually, the retro sexual politics depicted in this play is dynamite, when you think of it: Celia is also interesting, desiring a real man like awful Braham to overwhelm her and uninspired by decency and faithful affection. This is a ‘sixties woman, not yet happy in the new age which, thank God, was just beginning to dawn.

 

So as a period piece, it rang true; and Bird’s and Cole’s performances in particular left me convinced and rather sorrowful. It’s worth bringing back. And kids: if any of your tutors and peers behave like this, just remind them that they are being really, really old-fashioned. Neo-Victorian, almost.

 

 

box office http://www.atgtickets.com to 22 July

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WHISPER HOUSE The Other Palace SW1

GHOSTS OF WAR AND SHIPWRECK

 
“When all the world’s at war, it’s better to be dead”. Pallid pessimistic ghosts roam around a lonely Maine lighthouse in WW2, with heaving sepia seas behind (Mark Holthusen’s projections are ace, atmospheric, and so is Andrew W Riley’s circular pit of a set). The two disaffected phantoms roam around  singing , between the two halves of the band, and serve as narrators, when not looming over the other dramatis personae like singing Dementors, or luring  the young hero Christopher onto the causeway to drown.
 

He is a doughty child (a fine debut on press night for Stanley Jarvis, sharing the role with Fisher Costello-Rose) . He has lost his airman father, his Mum is in an asylum after trying to drown herself, so he is sent to live in the lighthouse with his curmudgeonly club-footed Aunt Lily who “isn’t used to children ” . She has a dark sad secret sin in her past which the ghosts understand daily resent, and puts cod liver oil in the boy’s  porridge. The ghosts have it in for him too,  and howl in his little ears in his bed as the seagulls shriek and the waves roar, Gothically moaning in mid-market rock “If this doesn’t terrify you, it should”.
 

 

So here’s a rock-opera cross between Turn of The Screw and Silas Marner, with – as it turns out – a dash of The Go-Between. For little Christopher is a patriot, determined to do his duty and tell inconvenient truths to the simple hearted sheriff . Which is awkward, since Lily”s longtime assistant and friend is a tall, kindly Mr Yasuhiro, who before long she is ordered to give up as a potential spy an enemy alien. The friendship between the pair – gentle giant Nicholas Goh beautifully restrained, and Dianne Pilkington, gruff and enduring – is the psychologically solid anchor of the story, though needs more work in the script.
The plot thickens,  quite satisfyingly, before a dramatic U- boat bombing, fight, ghost-drowning in smoke, and a resolution happy enough to make is safe enough to bring any child old enough to see Goodnight Mr Tom.  Actually, for an early taste of rock musicals, it’d be ideal.  Tickets go down to £ 15.

 

 

That it is here at all is encouraging.  Andrew Lloyd Webber, well on a roll after the smashing School Of Rock – which he opens in workshop form – has taken over the former St James as a crucible for experimenting with new musicals, pocket shows which might grow, and unreviewed experiments. This one is more finished, and up for review, though interestingly its advertised 2 hrs 10 came in at under two hours: one suspects late cuts in Adam Lenson’s production. That makes for a briskly enjoyable evening, though the music is not particularly memorable, and themes recur in both tune and lyrics more than often enough.  The composer is Duncan Sheik, who hit awards with Sspring Awakening, the book and other lyrics by Kyle Jarrow , inspired by true wartime events and sharpened by Trumpian 21c xenophobia. There’s a ghoststory-within-a-ghoststory too, because our moaning phantoms were drowned in a yacht cursed by its owner “Solomon Snell, Ring the Bell, Too much trust is the road to Hell”. He got buried alive. Eeek.

 

Actually, It’s not a bad yarn, and top marks for not being a movie-echo. Needs more varied numbers, though, to develop the characters of Lily, Yasuhiro and the sheriff. Simon Bailey and Niamh Perry are fabulous as the ghosts though, every bit as petulant, resentful, threatening and glamorous as one could ask.

 

box office 0844 264 2121 to 27 May
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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THE PLAGUE Arcola, E8

A JOURNEY THROUGH A PLAGUE YEAR

 

With the horror of Syria fresh on us, and Africa’s travails with Ebola still haunting, this sombre, unforgettable treatment of Albert Camus’ LA PESTE feels urgently present. Neil Bartlett has pared down the novel’s characters to five – the central Dr Rieux played with remarkable balanced strength by Sara Powell, and alongside her Joe Alessi, Burt Caesar, Billy Postlethwaite and Martin Turner as Cottard, Grand, Rambert and Tarrou : I note that for those who know the book, but you don’t need to in order to feel the force of this 85-minute play.

 
Bartlett – who also directs – stages it with just five chairs and two tables, but within that simplicity all the vigour and surprise we associate with Complicité, where he began. We seem to be the audience in a sports hall (the kind of place, in modern disasters, so often turned into emergency mortuaries), and the characters, led by Dr Rieux, urgently tell the story. “Understanding what happened” is their theme. Recording, remembering, accepting its terrifying truth, recording their city’s journey through death and horror, from the time when like any modern conurbation it was “frenetic and vacant”, hardworking and businesslike and neglectful of fellow-men’s reality.

 

So first there were the dead rats, merely a nuisance, but soon too many to ignore: corpses underfoot. Then the infection, the bubonic swellings, the gaping agony, the medical arrangements holding good for a while but people “properly unsettled”. Then it grew to quarantine proportions with people outraged, wanting exceptions, a reporter (Postlethwaite, swaggering at first) demanding to be allowed to leave because it isn’t his city anyway. As the horror mounts, the uncoffined dead thrown desperately into pits, he changes, and resolves to stay.

 
The doctor, and the others, flash back into the work they did, struggles with both practicality and despair; the people begin to find even love “useless, unfit for purpose” in this terrible captivity. A sequence when, invisible, a child dies before them is agonizing. But plagues end: the aftermath is strikingly a mixture of rejoicing and blame and the one hopeful conclusion:
“There is more to admire about one’s fellow-citizens than to despise or despair of. Of course it wasn’t a victory. It is what it is: an account of some things that had to be done, and which I am sure will have to be done again…Joy is always under threat”.
The plague bacillus – whether literal, or as Camus may have equally been indicating in that postwar year , political – is only ever dormant. It will be back. But somehow, from this harsh haunting show you emerge into the bustle of East London encouraged.
Box Office: 020 7503 1646 | http://www.arcolatheatre.com
to 8 May    RATING four 4 Meece Rating

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SEA FRET Old Red Lion, Islington

A CANUTE FOR THE AGE OF ANYWHERES

 
This substantial début play by Tallulah Brown hits an intriguing syncope with David Goodhart’s much-discussed definition of the UK tribes. Not left and right, not even just Brexit and Remain: “Anywheres” and “Somewheres”. The first are confident, mobile, probably graduates: their identity is rooted in their own achievements and portable abilities . The Somewheres, in contrast, draw their psychological strength and happiness from belonging to a community, a place, sometimes a trade (“I am a Durham miner. I am Yorkshire / Suffolk / East End” etc). Deracination or an overwhelming influx is a problem to them more than to Anywheres, who just float away and choose a home that suits. We all have elements of each, but there is a real clash.

 
In this play, two girls on an East Coast shore are childhood friends. Now (in a rather overlong first half) they are school-leavers having all-night beach raves, necking absinthe and sniggering about sex in the manner of girls thee years younger: their territory a half-submerged WW2 pillbox on the shingle, on which they have scrawled memories of childhood and teens. Ruby’s mother is long gone, her piratical father Jim complicit in her drug-dealing. Exams and the outer world mean nothing to her, as her passion is for home , the beach and fun in the moment. Whereas Lucy is an embryonic Anywhere, off to “uni”. Her middle-class mother Pam (here’s an invisible commuter Dad) is exasperatedly helping Jim in his protest against the Environment Agency’s decision to let that bit of beach go, and his clifftop house with it.

 

 

A summers-end rave ends in a boy overdosing, eating pebbles and ending in a coma (this has happened: I too live along that coast). At the same time Jim’s protest fails. The second act shows the girls’ social estrangement and Ruby’s obsessive – and guilty – use of her earnings to organize truckloads of spoil and rubble, Canute-like, for a private battle with erosion. That has happened too, at one famous point along our Suffolk coast.

 
“Loving where you live with every bone in your body has got to count for something” cries Ruby, aggressively furious at the public meeting. There is some lovely writing here, romantic about the bleak North Sea and its phosphorescent or stormy moods. Jim – who may owe a bit to Rooster Byron in Jerusalem – punctuates scenes with Shallow Brown, Lowlands Away and other sea songs in a properly thrilling folk voice (Philippe Spall is immensely watchable, and nicely subtle in his later un-Rooster capitulation to reality). He is terrific, but the necessary engine of the play is the troubled, determined Ruby (Lucy Carless).

 

 
It is a professional debut, and taken a bit too fast and garbled at first in the naturalistic teenage chatter. The author would also have done her a favour by making her less obnoxious in her sexual bragging, contempt for her friend’s ambition and shrugging at the overdosed boy. But Carless certainly scores a startling theatrical first when she hurls a tampon from under her PVC kilt to go skinny-dipping, and there is real, solid tragic feeling in the second act as she labours with her barricade and her conscience.

 

 

As Lucy Georgia Kerry is a good contrast, torn between maturity and a desire to be as sexily cool as Ruby; Karen Brooks is Pam, every fed-up commuter wife, having a credible salty exasperated friendship with Jim. Who knows really, that you can’t ever stop the sea and that great sections of our coast will vanish without it being anyone’s fault (he haltingly brings up an old Devon case, Hallsands, caused by a shipyard development but geologically completely different). It is Ruby, the passionate damaged child, who can accept neither erosion nor adulthood. That’s what you leave remembering.

 

box office oldredliontheatre.co.uk to 22 April
rating three    3 Meece Rating

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THE STRANGE UNDOING OF PRUDENCIA HART Eastern Angles Tour

A WILD TALE FROM HELL’S BORDERS   – on the roadTouring Mouse wide

 

 

This enterprising regional touring company generally focuses on the East, whether John Clare or Arthur Ransome, Viking legends or wartime GI bases. This time it heads improbably to Scotland: to wintry nights . wild fiddlers, echoing skin drums and snowy devilry. Fair enough: like Artistic Director Ivan Cutting I grew up with the border ballads – Tam Lin, the Twa Corbies, shipwrecks and lost foundlings and journeys to satanic underworlds to quarrel with the De’il himself. And folk music is the medium for it: shivers and mysteries wrapped in the convivial warmth of twinkling fiddle-bows and strong singers.

 

Thus David Greig’s strange play, born in the National Theatre of Scotland and met more often at festivals, was right up my street from the first moment when Hannah Howie sang Scott’s ”My love is like a red red rose”, the lights fell , and the others- Elspeth Turner, Simon Donaldson, and Robin Hemmings – joined in the darker harmony of the Twa Corbies dispassionately observing a slain knight …

“Mony a one for him makes mane
But nane sall ken where he is gane
O’er his white banes, when they are bare
The wind sall blaw for evermair”.

 

 

Shiver! But like all tall tales and fireside stories, it has merriment. The story, told mainly in couplet narration shared around the cast with instruments and songs between, is both joke and perceptive psychology, bound up in the legends and intersecting with them in a half-dreamed half-drunk ordeal. Prudencia (Howie) is a prim student of folklore specializing in “the topography of Hell in the border ballads” and irritated at an academic conference where a professor explains Negative Reading, hipster Colin (Hemmings) talks rubbish about Lady Gaga and Facebook updates being as valid as Scottish identity, and Siolaigh (“a posh way to say Sheila”) darkly opines that in a masculine world of borders the river Tweed is a vagina.

 
But trapped in a snowstorm, Colin and Prudencia take refuge in a noisy pub lockdown with some really alarming Corbies in bird costumes, and being shy in company she hides the the pub lavatory (we’ve all been there) and heads out alone, meets under a sodium streetlamp a singing dead woman and puppet babies, and is taken to her bed and breakfast. Which is, of course, a gate to Hell because what else do you expect on a midwinter’s eve, when the devil lures rash souls who venture abroad?.

 

The second act, in the b & b eternity, shows Prudencia the essential aridity of some of her scholarship and – one way or another – the essential nature of human contact and love. Donaldson is oddly compelling as the depressed geeky devil who suddenly becomes , the pub-and-house staging rather brilliantly enabling this, an immense goat-skull-headed flying demon following her escape.

 
It’s done with brio and humour and real shivers, a production Scotland would be proud of and Eastern Angles should be. And as I picked it up on one of his multifarious travelling venues, it possibly also marks the only time the Methodist And United Reformed Hungate Church in Bungay has hosted a vigorous likeness of Hell, albeit in the form of a Kelso b & b. It’s on the road again, far and wide in the East, and touring-mouse offers a thumbs-up.

 
tour: https://easternangles.co.uk/event/prudencia-hart#tab-0=dates-and-times

Rating four  4 Meece Rating

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ABIGAIL’S PARTY Oxford Playhouse & Touring

Touring Mouse wide

BEVERLEY ON THE ROAD AGAIN

 

This a fascinating play, not least because forty years on we can’t seem to get enough of it. Cherished by am-dram, revived by excellent casts and theatres, it tours to keen houses and gales of laughter. Yet Mike Leigh’s most famous (and not typical) play is cold-hearted, snobbish, misogynistic and dated. Leigh – rebutting Denis Potter’s ““based on nothing more edifying than rancid disdain…twitching with genuine hatred, about the dreadful suburban tastes of the dreadful lower middle classes” insists that it is a tragicomedy, “a lamentation, not a sneer”. I tried very hard to buy that, but whatever the intention, its heart emerges as frozen in a posture of amused contempt. It gets away with it because, done properly, even as you shudder it is horribly funny.

 

 

Beverley’s famous soirée at 13 Richmond Road is a window into a hell which makes Sartre’s Huis Clos seem like Center Parcs. Much of its humour is based on contempt for a social class a rank below the knowledgeable theatre audience – Beaujolais in the fridge, cheese-and-pineapple hedgehogs, naff Boots prints – added to that mid-class’ patronizing contempt for one still further down, people doing “shift work”, saving up for a leather-look three-piece, making pilchard curry, and in Beverley’s husband Laurence’s view, lowering the local tone. It is also, more importantly, about five people who are not happy or fulfilled in life, and who are offered not one fragment of redemptive hope of ever being so.

 
But it’s funny. And today, in an assured production born at the Theatre Royal Bath, its cast take it for all it’s worth. Amanda Abbington is perfect as the hostess, a wannabe Margo Leadbetter without the grace, swaying in a Grecian dress ever lower on the shoulder in the presence of fresh testosterone, a sashaying Stalin plying her guests with drink and nibbles (Are you su-ah? when they try to refuse) . She patronizes the sweetly unoffended Angie and vamps her taciturn husband, never missing a chance to coo a viciously “understanding” remark. It goes without saying that above all, Beverley is bored. Ben Caplan’s Laurence, an estate agent, is another disappointed figure, hunched and unhealthy, stumping nicely around, prone to flickers of rage and (the one touching thing in the play) to cultural aspiration at the Lowry-print and James-Galway level and with a genuinely sad envy of people with “a talent”. Charlotte Mills is a touching Angie, tubbily kind, unpretentious, unoffendable and nursily competent; Ciaran Owens glowers for England as her oafish embarrassed Tony.

 

 

And we laugh. At the period detail now, too: Demis Roussos, a house bought for 21k, Beverley’s needing her husband to write the cheque for the weekly shop, the fabulously 70s decor. A good few of the audience I joined were too young to remember it all: maybe it was seeing a revival of this play a few years back which caused them panickily to vote Remain because they feared Mr Farage would lead us back there. A few of the older audience, it must be admitted, actually sang along to the final Demis Roussos track after the disastrous conclusion. But the eagerness to whoop and cheer, seconds after the fatal coronary and useless CPR, made you realize that we may still be at heart the same nation that cheered the bear-baiting and turned out en masse for hangings. It’s a cruel play. But OK. It’s funny.

 

Oxford Playhouse to Saturday: touring on to Cambridge, Malvern, Richmond, to 29 April
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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THE GOAT or, WHO IS SYLVIA? Theatre Royal, Haymarket

A DANGEROUS PASTORAL

 
You wait months for a violently emotional taboo-smashing play by Edward Albee and two come along at once. After the bitter razor-sharp humanity of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf down the road Albee’s last play – shorter and more shocking – hits you like a second ten-ton truck. More shocked laughs, more vigorous torrents of scorn, and a bigger taboo. The biggest.

 
Martin (Damian Lewis) as an amiable, absent-minded, celebrated architect on his fiftieth birthday, happily married to the gorgeous light-hearted Stevie. In an interview with his old friend Ross, he says he is in love, headily and physically, outside the marriage. With a goat. Called Sylvia. Their eyes met over a fence – his wide and romantic, hers presumably yellow with that alarming Satanic vertical slit – and that was it. He keeps – and shags – her in a barn in the country.

 

 

Ross, after a moment, dismayedly believes him and writes to Stevie . Whereon, in the long central scene, the previous bantering of the pair turns into one of the most electrically charged confrontations on any London stage for years. Stevie is Sophie Okonedo, meeting each stage of Martin’s ‘explanation” of how beautiful and lyrical his new love is with terrifyingly violent , immaculately timed smashing of some item in their cool bare-brick living room. (“That was my mother’s picture!” “It still is!”). Damian Lewis is excellent, capturing Martin’s dismaying sincerity, but Okonedo’s is the performance which will be remembered for decades. She gives us the wife’s wit, horror, humiliated rage, and incomprehension streaked with all-too-vivid understanding of what this idiot she loves is doing.

 
It is about taboos, but also about all extremes: the moments, as Stevie says, when life throws you something so far beyond the norm that you are wandering in a terrifying darkness. There is also, given the history of racial-sexual politics and slavers listing humans like livestock,  an inescapable frisson in casting a beautiful black woman in the part. The most devastating of her speeches is when she expresses how he must have gone from her bed to the barn and back, putting her on equal terms with the animal. This is a dark moment; but earlier foreshadowed in a wittier, more furious “ “I am a human being. I walk upright. I give milk only ON SPECIAL OCCASIONS..”

 
For indeed there are some wild alarmed laughs to be had in the tense unbroken 110 minutes. Ian Rickson directswith the same finely judged balance of unbearable tension and barkingly funny shocks he brought to Elektra at the Old Vic; appropriately since what Albee was explicitly doing was following the Greek line of tragedy – a respected hero, a fatal flaw, downfall and too-late remorse.

 

 

That is its core, but a more modern theme is simply that of the awkward overspill (mainly in males) from generous love to inappropriate sexual engagement . The edginess of this is too rarely tackled in modern shag-friendly narratives,  but Albee grew up gay in a harsh 20th century when loves now accepted were treated (and indeed medicated) with a parallel horror to what we feel for Martin’s goat-love.

 
To hammer that awkwardness home, an extraordinary scene with his gay son Billy (a fine debut from Archie Madekwe) has father and son in an embrace which tips momentarily into a sexual kiss. Martin then defends it with an even more transgressive account of a father finding himself unwillingly stimulated by a wriggling baby on his knee. An audience which has managed to laugh through an earlier sequence, punctuated by Okonedo smashing crockery as Martin describes his fellow therapy-subjects engaged with pigs, a dog and a goose, is  frankly silenced by that remark.

 

Thus Albee’s job is done. The messiness of the human condition, after all, is our proper study.

 

box office 020 7930 8800 to 24th June
Rating five    5 Meece Rating

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CONSENT Dorfman, SE1

THE HOME LIVES OF OUR OWN DEAR LAWYERS…

 
When a topic is painfully current and theatre plunges in, the heart does not always sing with optimism. But Nina Raine is an old hand , and knows how to make a play work without a virtuous political clunking. Acid-sharp, observant and pitiless this one is as much about normally ghastly marital behaviour as about the drunken-rape case and trial which flashes, with fierce drama, through its core.

 

 

We meet two affluent couples, bantering cheerfully: Ben Chaplin’s saturnine lawyer Ed and his wife Kitty with her new baby – Anna Maxwell Martin, strung like a neurotic violin. Their older friends Jake and Rachel are Adam James and Priyanga Burford, showing signs of irritation which foreshadow news of their furious separation. Adam James is a delight, entrusted with most of the really barkingly funny lines in the play but also emotionally woundable and redeemable when his sins are discovered. They have another friend, singleton Tim (a morosely misfittish Pip Carter ) who they are trying to set up with Kitty’s friend, the foxy, baby-hungry fringe actress Zara. That is a splendid turn from Daisy Haggard, both in initial breeziness and finally a magnificent, angry rage.

 

 
The marital shenanigans do tend towards the category of first-world-yuppie-problems, of which one can tire. Anna Maxwell Martin in particular is given a character so infuriating yet pitiable that empathy stalls. But the point is that Tim and Ed are both barristers, and the heart of the play is about the muddle of emotion and misperception out of which the chilly law must draw conclusions. In one electric scene they snipe at one another while illustrating tricks of advocacy – ask closed questions, make statements disguised as inquiries, leave tense pauses, “repeat their answers slowly, like they’ve fucked up”.

 

 

It is, to them, a game: but they are legal opponents in briefly-glimpsed court sequences of a squalid case in which Gayle – Heather Craney – was raped on the night of her sister’s funeral and didn’t dare report it straight away. Her own drinking and sexual habits are plumbed humiliatingly in evidence, while the alleged rapist’s violent history was “inadmissible”. It is cruelly and sharply done, with no acknowledgement that she would probably have had a victim-supporter with her in a shockingly cold first meeting with the Crown prosecutor; Craney gives Gayle a powerful wounded dignity. Indeed by the end of the lengthy first act, growing rather more fascinated by the trapdoors through which furniture kept rising and falling than with the couples’ bickering, I started to think that the play might be as much about class as about law and sexual consent. Cransey’s irruption into the comfortable home where the stoned, tipsy gang convene for Christmas, and where she sees that the warring barristers “are mates!” has a real shiver of Nemesis.

 
In the second, short and electrically furious act it would take more than trapdoors to distract anyone. Jake and Rachel have forgiven the infidelities, and trouble now focuses on resentful sullen Kitty (“I split myself in two for you and that fucking baby!”) and her attempt to get even for a five-year-old infidelity. It is a passionate half-hour, the two men far more emotionally and brilliantly intense about threats to their marriage and children than we usually see onstage. A nice detail is that the most absurd and painful rows take place with all four on tiny nursery chairs, reduced to sobbing toddlerhood, accusing each other of being mad.

Another rape accusation surfaces; the cool rational lawyer Ed is sobbing helplessly, and Kitty wails “You can’t legislate for human behaviour”, though actually you can . Common sense speaks at last through the most unlikely shaman of them all, ditzy Zara: “Sorry? Sorry for yourself. Stop saying sorry, and be a nicer fucking person!!”. I’d have happily ended on that line, but Raine kindly affords us a small, undeserved redemptive moment.

 
There is, by the way, a wonderfully funny observation about rape as a tool of anger. When one wife is unfaithful and threatens to take the child, the instinct of her husband is towards sex. In the other case, he certainly doesn’t want sex but “to kill her” , and petulantly stamps on her foot. I found that oddly hopeful.

 

Box office 020 7452 3000 to 17 May
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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CHINGLISH Park Theatre, N4

TWO CULTURES, ONE TRICKY DEAL

 

David Henry Hwang’s play as a hit in the US, and as it premiered at this enterprising little theatre under diretor Andrew Keates, I took an appropriate friend as consultant. For she has travelled repeatedly in China, negotiated there and adopted two children. So after we had both laughed at the absurdities of culture-clash and appreciated the artful, deceptive plotting, she gave her verdict. “Yup. That’s what it’s like”. She recognized the sharp switches of tone, the sudden shouts down the phone, the emotional opacity and different values of an ancient society shaped by Maoist years and scraping now against the expectations of globalized business. Hwang catches it all, in a sharp comedy mocking both sides just about equally.

 
Daniel (Gyuri Sarossy) is an American businessman, a bit of a chancer as it turns out, who is in a minor Chinese city trying to sell signage to its new , wannabe-prestigious arts centre. There are plenty of laughs in the existing stiff mistranslations – ‘TO TAKE NOTICE OF SAFE’ , ‘DEFORMED MAN”S TOILET” etc . There are even more in the sequence of interpretation when we hear the Chinese speech in business meetings, see its real meaning flashed overhead, and then hear the hapless miniskirted interpreter (Siu-See Hung, smilingly deadpan and very funny) giving her version. When Daniel boasts that he is big in Chicago, which he isn’t, and explains that it is not a farming area, her version is “their crops failed long ago”.

 

 
Daniel initially thinks he can sew up the deal in a week, but the hangdog, failed-teacher Peter (Duncan Harte) who is his translator and “business consultant” warns him over some grim sour-fish soup that in China all business is built on Guanxi – relationships – and he must nurture those. So he does, but not quite in the way he thinks he is. One great joy of the piece – given the “whiteface” rows and how little airing our cadre of Chinese actors get as a rule – is that it is they who really carry the comedy of the succeeding intrigue of misunderstanding, over-close relationships and intricate betrayal. Lobo Chan as the Minister is wonderful: both funny, threatening and ultimately dignified. He favours high art, singing wailing snatches of Chinese Opera, and abhors the popular taste for acrobatics; he is also tangled up in his sister-in-law’s ambitions and an invisible tough wife.

 

 

Candy Ma is equally impressive, sometimes unreadable, sometimes all too clear, illustrating the character’s sharp difference of sexual and marital values compared to the hapless Daniel’s. Credit too to Hung, as both gormless girl interpreter and prosecutor, and Windson Liong as a favoured nephew even more incompetent in translation.

 
There is a good balance between plot and respect and funny-translation jokes (Deputy Minister Xi’s “I am sleeping with you” to express boredom, or DAniel’s hopeless inability to get the right intonation for his attempts at endearments emerging as Frog Loves To Pee) . And the denouement is finely worked out. A dry awareness of changing times is best expressed in Peter’s dilemma: ten years ago he was one of the few roundeyes living in China who spoke the language, and so much in demand; now the place is full of them and his living is tough but he can’t go home to Leicester because there wouldn’t be any servants to cook and care for him.//

 
box office 0207 870 6876 to 22 april
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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