Monthly Archives: June 2017





The thing that was, to me, most striking about Barber Shop Chronicles, was the familiarity of it all. From that specifically african sound made in the back of one’s throat (usually to express disapproval), right the way to Prince Nico Mbarga’s Sweet Mother softly playing in the background, via the playful rivalry between the Black Carribbean community and the Black African community. Yes, it all felt very familiar.


And indeed the play is about family. About the surrogate families we form and come to rely on when our biological ones are – for whatever reason – unable to give us what we need. All families need a home and the home here is the humble barber shop. The set is truthfully designed by Rae Smith; the intricacies of her work create yet more familiarity. The rickety mis-matched waiting chairs – some covered in kente cloth, the hand-painted shop front signs, even the hair products on the grooming stations – blue Dax! – much reminded me of a childhood well spent hanging around on Walworth Road, in south London. For those of us who have spent long summers in tiny African villages the imposing generator in the corner was instantly recognisable.


The action takes place across London, Lagos, Accra, Kampala, Joburg and Harare – and is based on often hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking real life conversations witnessed by Ellams on his visit to each.This is a novelty for me. It’s a novelty for me because I am a black and, like the writer of this play, Inua Ellams, of Nigerian heritage. The stories from our community are seldom given such prominence on the theatre stage.


Themes abound throughout the 105 minute show, but the most prominent is that of masculinity; and black masculinity, to be specific. It explores the difficulty faced by boys and young men of finding relatable and accessible role models in their local communities and how trying to compare themselves to ‘legends, titans, country sized men’ like Mandela, Martin, Malcolm and Marcus, can be overwhelming. It asks the big questions: am I still a man if I pluck my eyebrows? Will the mandem still accept me if I want to talk about my feelings? Can I claim to be a man if I don’t like pushing weights at the gym? Now, full disclosure: I am a woman. But it is because of this that I am all too aware of the damage that toxic masculinity can cause.


There are philosophically burdensome elements of this play and it sure does get emotional – Kwami Odoom’s final scene as Ethan, made my heart feel heavy; I recognised that boy in many I have known in real life – but these moments are well balanced by the razor sharp comedic performances of the cast. The thirty characters were split between twelve actors and I loved them all. Cyril Nri – whom I’ll always remember as Supt. Adam Okaro from The Bill – was the perfectly imperfect father figure Emmanuel, whose Dad Humour was a highlight. I cackled at Patrice Naiambana and his accidental flashing as Old Tokunbo, was charmed by Simon Manyonda as Tanaka The HipsterGeek and I fell in love with Winston, played by Anthony Welsh (I am sure that wink-of-the-eye was aimed in my direction). But the stand out performance for me was given by Hammed Animashaun who took on four characters but his Muhammed, a 30-something, diamante-wearing, woman-Loving, London-living Nigerian man, was particularly special. Just like in the 2Pac song, all eyez were on him as he stole the show.


It is in experiencing the highs, the lows, the tensions followed by release into the heady heights of uncontrollable snort-laughter that one comes to truly appreciate the supreme union of Ellams’ writing and Bijan Sheibani’s direction.


Of course you could not have a celebration of Mother Africa and all her ways without the inclusion of song. It is in this area kudos is due to the music director Michael Henry whose barber shop quartet style voice arrangements that swept us from city to city inspired delight. Meanwhile, the soundtrack has proved so popular with audiences there is now a Spotify playlist featuring D’Banj, Fuse ODG and Skales as well as Shakka, Giggs, Ghetts and Jme. Song is nothing without dance and movement director Aline David’s paso-doble-esque choreography was a real treat. The urge to get out of my seat and join them was almost to much to contain. Almost.


The play offers a masterclass in the myriad of ways there is to be a 21st century man. It’s an Ode to the Barber Shop, a place for talking, where many of these men are made.




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INK Almeida N1


It’s a solid stunner of a play which has you punching the air for Rupert Murdoch by the interval. Bertie Carvel’s Murdoch asks in the opening scene, lit only by a sharp smokey beam of light, “What’s a story?”.

The transformation of the stuffy broadsheet into a popular tabloid with knicker week, Page 3 models, free giveaways and chunky font is one. It’s a sprawling real-life tale of competing egos, competing morals and competing ideas of Britain and of the press.

And sprawling real-life tales in need of snappy and dramatic condensation is James Graham’s speciality. If he had business cards (I doubt it, who does?) that would be on them. His translation of the potentially dry backroom machinations of the House of Commons under the 74-79 Labour government (This House) got theatrical juices flowing everywhere.

And here they flow freely again. The first year of the rejuvenated Sun could have run for hours and hours on stage. But Graham’s play is pacy and witty. Key moments are in there (the murder of Muriel McKay, the origin of Page 3) but it never feels like just a skip through a timeline. The full arc of the play is neat and laser-focused, and the cast are fat with good lines and fulsome, colourful, sweary and undeniably entertainingly British character.

Director Rupert Goold ensures nothing is extraneous. The scenes whip through like a snappy TV drama, although of course TV would never be this good. He’s also unafraid of a slightly musical vibe. Bunny Christie’s set is a mount of desks the cast clamber all over, the lighting is colourful and active, and the transitions are regularly helped along by bursts of music and ‘almost-dancing’. Anywhere else this could feel a bit forced. But in the office of the new fun Sun, which gives knickers away to readers in a can, it seems bang on.

At the helm, Bertie Carvel brilliantly dishes all the dirty ambition of the Dirty Digger. But nicely mixed with the underdog fighting spirit we all like to get behind. The line between charming trailblazer and ruthless exploiter is nailed perfectly with a sly Aussie accent and a slightly twitchy mannerism. Likewise Richard Coyle (as editor Larry Lamb) embodies so smoothly the transition required by the play; go-getting outsiders turned liable players.

The entire cast (many flitting between numerous parts) have perfected the tricky line many of Graham’s characters tread. They’re warm, slightly boozy, bawdily-British triers. But they make mistakes, they misjudge, they veer off the straight and narrow. But the play doesn’t come down on them like a tonne of bricks. There’s no handwringing finale, no “CENTRAL MESSAGE” slapped around the audience’s faces. Graham simply uses the weight of research he’s compiled to confidently open a dramatic window on this world. But always, unlike so many new plays, with an eye firmly on what’s the story.


Rating: 5 Mice

 5 Meece Rating

Until 5th August

Box Office: 020 7359 4404

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HIR Bush, W12




There aren’t many issues in life that haven’t been solved, rationalised or  helpfully knocked about by plays. ‘What to do when you lose your identical twin and feel the urge to cross-dress and a random lady falls in love with you’ being one of the trickier knots: Will managed it. But the modern gender revolution, with its own thesaurus and code of conduct, has yet to trouble the mainstream London stage in an effective way.



So I understand the effort here. But Taylor Mac’s play HIR doesn’t get us any closer to an intelligent, insightful or useful theatrical outing (pun intended). The Bush’s traverse stage is a filthy American house. The aircon is blasting, dirty clothes outnumber visible floor-tiles and Arthur Darvil’s Isaac has returned from war to find his father in a dress (massive stroke), his sister with a beard (transitioning) and his previously beaten-down mum alive with the excitement of gender debate.
Nothing is how he left it. I rubbed my hands ready for a ride through identity, home, belonging, family. I got sitcom. Loud conversation, with little to say.



Characters have ‘a thing’ and they stick to that. Anything we slowly learn about them (the Dad was horrible, the Mum now humiliates him in his infirmity), just slides off, leaving little impression. And because the characters don’t move, neither does the dialogue. Every conversation fits the formula ‘indignant person explains being transgender to shocked person’. There are occasional laughs (Noah and the Ark being transphobic) but the debate isn’t up to the fight, and the performances are far from fit enough to save it. Arthur Darvil just shouts every line in surprise, Ashley McGuire as the mum delivers speeches as the primary-school explanations they are, and Griffyn Gilligan (Max, Darvill’s transgender sibling) fails to make anything convincing of what should be the most emotionally engaging part.



It’s clear the playwright is excited by the topic. Rightly so, it’s fertile ground. But for us to care as well, there needs to be some soul, some humanity beneath the debate .



Box Office: 020 8743 5050 to 22 July
rating: one  Costume design mouse resized

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GLORIA Hampstead, NW3




There are three acts: the first long, expressing an enervatingly pointless world and ending in a sharp shock. The second is competitively cynical and rises to another kind of shock, the sort with disgust in it. The last is shorter still, offering a nicely vicious resolution. Some characters in the first act return as new but related people; others as their psychologically damaged selves, which adds to the unsettling atmosphere . This play won Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins a Pulitzer last year: it is clever and angry, though its rage is overlaid with a detachment reminiscent of Neil Simon: a sense of the author standing back with “Lord, what fools these mortals be” rather than suffering alongside them.



It is also, in its theme, horribly topical when Britain has just suffered four murderous shocks and must accept that we may see parallels to the devil’s-dance of aftermath that this play demonstrates. For Jacobs-Jenkins’ theme is “the commodification of the witness or victim: the marketability of the survivor-story. We do not initially know this: the first scenes, set in the junior assistants’ cubicles of a glossy magazine office , are intermittently funny, dense with embittered office banter by a group of millennials. They seem to be focusing on quite other things. Perhaps generational rivalry – Kae Alexander is appositely recognizable as the fashion-blogging, brittle Kendra ranting against bed-blocking babyboomers; so is Colin Morgan as Dean, who yearns to get the hell out and pen a memoir of his so far uneventful life. Bayo Gbadamosi as the still younger intern looks on, and is darkly suspected of wanting to get their jobs. Fury rises further in the young at the news that an invisible older writer is getting the gig of doing a profile of a dead pop star of their era. Meanwhile a comparative veteran fact-checker has a sort of existential breakdown, and the unpopular office geek dashes through, glaring.
The point, nicely made, is that in this ‘glamorous’ job, all the interesting power stuff is always happening in another room. We all remember the feeling.

Then comes the disaster. Never mind what. The succeeding acts move us by stages from New York to LA, from real fear and facts to the stage where it matters more who gets their account in print most lucratively, and whether there’s a mini-series in it. And, indeed, how much the publishing industry cares who was actually in the room, once “great angles” , “personal catharsis” and “beautifully written” accounts are weighed up.




This distortion happens. There is no point hoping that right now, out in our own city, there are not publishers and film-makers sniffing with careful, hopeful tact and chequebooks around the survivors of Grenfell Tower and the London and Manchester attacks.



Michael Longhurst’s production is not quite perfect, or not yet. Kendra’s brittle lines in the first act sometimes defy full comprehensibity to the untuned ear, though Kae Alexander gets the hair-flicking horror of her character absolutely pat. Some scenes could be trimmed down. But it is fascinating and timely, and sometimes horribly funny (the IT guy in the final scene is pure joy). And of the performances, Bo Poraj’s and and Morgan’s in particular stand out as fully-inhabited and memorably troubling. Not every survivor has a story he wants to tell in public, or should be encouraged to.



box office 020 7722 9301 to 22 July
rating three  3 Meece Rating


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BAT OUT OF HELL           London Coliseum WC1



“On a hot summer night, would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red roses?”
Or in this case, a red carpet  lined with Hells Angels and three generations of fans. Would you? Swelteringly, yes!. On this hot summer night, the howling, raw-rocking, Fender-bashing wolf can have us, throats and all.



Jim Steinman’s astonishing rock ballads, brought to our hearts (and my car stereo, pretty well daily)  by Meat Loaf, were originally meant for the stage, rather than just that immortal album. So this isn’t some limp jukebox musical, with a thin storyline by some dreary Ben-Eltonish  hack. They were already storytelling songs, all soul and muscle and poetry and the innocent violence of  teenage yearning: “the flesh and the fantasy, the mystery and the muscle of love”.



So of course they should be onstage: and now they gloriously are, with exploding bikes and flames and a car, and guns and multicoloured smoke and somersaults and projections.    And, at their heart not just  burning jealousies but the sudden  jokes which bubble up in the deadliest of times if you are young, as they have done ever since Mercutio punned on his deathbed.




Jay Scheib’s production is a technical spectacular, Jon Bausor leading the design, and wild exuberant choreography by Emma Portner – the ensemble are unbelievable, both in song (Michael Reed is musical director) and in the street-wild movement. But  its chief glory is narrative and emotional. It is set in a scifi  urban dystopia where a  tribe of the  “Lost”‘ ,permanently mutated to be forever eighteen, live in tunnels under the rule of Falc, the rich property landlord. Nicely topical for London: he  rules  in his tower with his discontented wife Sloane . But Falco’s daughter Raven is loved by the gang leader Strat, who comes to her  bedroom as if in a dream (shades of Keats’ Eve of St Agnes, and rather more of Peter Pan and Wendy, since Strat can’t grow older and has a jealous best friend called, er, Tink, who hates Raven).




Andrew Polec, a rising US star, is a powerful intense Strat in both snarling and sentimental rock mode. Christina is Bennington an enchanting Raven:  a Juliet sometimes hesitant, sometimes headlong.  Both have great rock voices, but equalling them , often cripplingly funny and occasionally touching, are Rob Fowler’s Falco and Sharon Sexton as his wife Sloane. The joy of Steinman’s construction is that the beloved songs are parcelled out to different characters, often  with a chorus and other subplots joining in. So Fowler and Sexton’s rendering of Paradise by the Dashboard Light, (“we were barely seventeen, we were barely dressed”) may, in its wicked hilarity get me back there. Danielle Steers’ bluesy Zahara gets the heartbreak of “One outa three aint bad”, , and – when imprisoned and beaten by Falco –  the gang members in Guantanamo orange jumpsuits get to break your heart with memories of those objects in the rear view mirror: (“So many threats and fears, so many wasted years, before my life became my is just a highway and the soul is just a car..”


I keep quoting, and call on Keats and Shakespeare,  for good reason. For Steinman is a real poet: an emotionally intense balladeer of thrilled new love, when electricity runs through a beloveds  very hair, and bodies seem to rhyme:  of doubt and desire and daring and regret and absurdity, and longing for sex to be more than the moment. As an expression of eroticism it is the antithesis of porn; as a bard of biker bravura and rebellion Steinman is refreshingly uncynical.


And the music! Real rock, melodious and violent, ragingly operatic. Generations gather round it like a fire: I went with my daughter; one fan group had been over twenty times, and not all were anywhere near young. Actually, the middle aged even have a new song in which to laugh at ourselves and be laughed: Falco and Sloane’s  furious number “Who needs the young? when all WE have is traces – of the faces we once were..”


In short, it’s three kinds of bliss. Only those now locked impenetrably into their middle age will resist it.


box office   020 7845 9300        to 5 August     Off to Toronto in autumn.
Rating. Five.  5 Meece Rating

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It’s fun down in the Dorfman pit. Under exuberant African barbershop posters from Lagos, Harare, Accra – and London – a cast of barbers and customers-to be josh and wander, dance a few steps and accost the front row. Their territory is a mongrel assembly of garden chairs, sofas, much-used equipment, lanterns and one ancient generator. Overhead a wire globe rotates among chaotic drooping wires and lights. We will live for a hundred and five minutes in this raggedy low-rent masculine world, amid the men of the African diaspora. Seamlessly, at showtime a television on the far side summons them all to an Oh! and a “no!” and a final cheer for the football. And we’re off.



Hopes and fears and preoccupations are filtered through one long day in the barber-shops, which can be as one wise South African clipper says near the end, “beacons”: the heart of communities . Places where troubled male hearts find a truce, and ask themselves and one another about what is it to be a black man? A strong black man with pride and purpose, groping in a world where national father-figures – and real fathers – so often let you down?



Inua Ellams, Nigerian poet and playwright, was last in this space with his BLACK T SHIRT COLLECTION, and sparked sharp mischievous delight with his show AN EVENING WITH AN IMMIGRANT. This is a fuller and more satisfying play, though there are times when you wonder if it will complete itself and become a play indeed, or remain a run of sketches linked only by the rattling-castored, dancing swirl of movement from one country, one group of men to the next. There are sly linking themes – a joke about three men in a bar which appears to be universal, or the young men noting the proverb that “the older a man gets, the faster he ran as a boy”. Often it comes back to that theme of fatherhood. There are wonderful one-liners: a few probably lost in patois on some of us, but many direct hits.. There is a furious political debate about whether pidgin is a language which must be preserved, and a knockabout over whether Mugabe is a national hero or a thug.



. But as Bijan Sheibani’s fast-moving direction steers it towards resolution , a wider theme grows: solidified in a superb rant by an old, desperate south African drunk expressing something which – as a former appalled schoolgirl in apartheid south Africa – I have long expected to hear. That is an expression of the stark anger which must rise in poor black South Africans now: rage even at Mandela himself for his benignity and rainbow words, because the white masters were not driven out, not annihilated and exiled, not belittled and humiliated in return. They still hold most of the wealth and power. The calm old barber beside the angry old man talks of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the need to move on. And then through a rapid swirl and rattle of castors, we are back in the London barbershop where a more personal truth and reconciliation has to take place.



And, in a quiet falling coda, an 18 year old comes in after hours for a trim because he is an actor due at an audition . It’s a neat trick, as the play began in Lagos with someone turning up at 6 a.m. desperate for an “aerodynamic” cut for a job interview. This lad, well-spoken and shy and a little camp, is going for a part as “a black man ..a strong black man” . But his own father left when he was six, and he plucks his eyebrows and is an actor doesn’t know what a strong black man is any more, because the Mandelas and Luther Kings are “continent sized’ and he is only a small island…



And so the play, the scruffy barbershop world, in its last phases becomes itself more of a continent than a quirky island. What makes a good man?


box office 020 7452 3000 8 July
rating four    4 Meece Rating

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TRISTAN & YSEULT Shakespeare’s Globe, SE1




This is a famously significant piece of theatre: created in 2003 in a Cornish field , it was one of the first successes of Emma Rice’s Kneehigh, precursor of wild successes like Brief Encounter, Rebecca and The Wild Bride. Her idiosyncratic, joyful style of course led her to her short-lived tenure in charge of the Globe. But this adaptation was the genesis of it all: its larky, irreverent, vaudevillian style at the time revolutionary. It ran at the NT Cottesloe, toured two hemispheres, and now returns re-cast , but with the same spirit and the most of the original Bill Mitchell design and rope-hauling aerialism. Here in the Globe – currently still in the Emma Rice it’s-a-gig mode, with amplification and fancy lights – the tempo is turned up more than Cottesloe audiences remember. To the extent, indeed, that sometimes the broad jokes, asides , urgings of the groundlings and bursts of pop singalong (“Up all night to get lucky”) could make a newcomer feel a bit as if he had wandered into Butlins.


Especially since the story, or the core of it, is the mythic medieval-Arthurian tragedy of Tristan – born in sorrow to a broken heart – and his love for King Mark of Cornwall’s bride Yseult. You do get a couple of bursts of Wagner’s Liebestod – one at the start, one at the finale – but in between there are comedy kick-fights and goolie-grabbing, and a musically unWagnerian diversity from Nick Cave to tango. As to the spoken text – by Anna Maria Murphy and Carl Grose – some of it is strikingly poetic, even profound; some is not. King Mark – Mike Shepherd, one of the few accorded some dark dignity – has loose iambics which often work; Kirsty Woodward, narrating from the point of view of Tristan’s eventual wife, delivers dry sharp storytelling in strict 1950’s ladieswear; only occasionally is there a line truly bathetic, like Kyle Lima as the Iago-ish betrayer Frocin lamenting “I’ve been nothing but your loyal servant, my King / Don’t say Ive ruined everything”… Luckily, Lima’s physical brilliance and bonkers fight-dancing carries him along for most of the evening.



But actually the whole shebang carries you along: as Yseult Hannah Vassallo is light, touching and lovely, and Dominic Marsh a goodly glamorous Tristan. THe play is short (two hours five including the interval), vigorous, and above all rather interestingly framed. For Rice’s perception is that while lovers are interesting, most of us have had periods, or indeed lives, in “The Club of the Unloved”, who can only look on. They are represented here by a chorus of anoraked, bespectacled, balaclava-wearing figures with birders’ binoculars (a bit unfair, surely some anoraks have lovers too?).




This chorus , often musicians as well, can test the patience slightly with their miming, larking and asides; sometimes, as can happen in a Rice production, there is an uneasy sense that every flash of sincere emotion must be sent up as fast as possible. Still, there are moments she does not undermine. Niall Ashdown as the maid Brangian is very funny indeed in his cross-dressed, anxious bridal moment, yet genuinely poignant in its aftermath. And as the sky darkens over London and the reality of love, betrayal, separation and death swells before us, the sad cry of Iseult White-hands, on behalf of all the unglamorous unloved, suddenly grows real power.



It is – the director says – possibly its last outing, and probably one of its noisiest. But because of its history and the theatrical style is pioneered and spread,  it is a show for anyone interested in theatre to see. And for the young hilarious groundlings and many singing and cheering from the galleries, clearly just pure pleasure.



box office 020 7902 1400 to 25 July
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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KISS ME Trafalgar studio 2 SW1





I have a taste for plays about the years between the wars. The WW1 anniversary saw some fascinating contemporaneous ones, often at the Jermyn. There is rich material in it: the weight of grief, survivor-guilt, the shadow of the next war only 21 years later, and not least the new awareness and independence of women who had done tough wartime jobs in munitions or nursing, but then found that the great toll of young male deaths left them as “surplus women” with no family future. So it was irresistible to see how Richard Bean, in our own time and best known for sharp comedy, would deal with it in this two-hander set in 1929, as strangers meet in a bedroom with all this weight of history and sadness still heavy upon them ten years after the Armistice.



It succeeds, in the most curious of ways beyond both its comedy and its setting, creating by the end a perennial meditation on the triangular relationship between love, sexual desire, and procreation. In an age when so much fiction centres on zipless hookups which try to avoid both emotional entanglement and pregnancy, what we have here is a fictional – but not improbable – situation where a rogue Dr Trollope (unseen) arranges insemination by anonymous sex for women esperate for babies, whether widowed or with damaged husbands.



Our young woman (Claire Lams) is an independent widow of ten years who drives a munitions lorry. She waits in her lodgings for the appointment, nervous, checking the mirror, smoothing the eiderdown. The man (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) is youngish, bowler-hatted, with an umbrella over his arm. He prissily removes his tiepin, lays down the doctor’s rules about no-kissing and no-real-names. The woman is the brighter spirit, chatting and bantering; he, a sober and at first unreadable veteran of these excruciating encounters, wants less talk. But he has to explain why he was not enlisted, is not dead… his very survival proves too much, at first, for her to carry on.
Yet they do, because to separate feelings from sex is never as easy as moderns like to think. We see a development over months of encounters: the back-story of her lost husband and brief teenage marriage, a weird, unsettling glimpse into the man’s motivation and his damage. It is alternately touching, absurd, thoughtful, painful and poignant . Anna Ledwich directs, drawing a whole reality from the two characters. You can laugh with the banter – Lams is superb in her evocation of spirited, awakened, hurt womanhood – and wince at the psychological scars on both of them, and on the reflection that no war is every really over. The angel of death has long, dark wings.
It is a curiosity of a play, unexpected and impossible to forget. I’m glad I went.


box office to 8 July
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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COMMON National Theatre, SE1


“You are blight and darkness and sin…” Lost village girl Mary comes home to her beloved Laura after a lifetime of sin in “that devil-town London”, but finds – well – that’s the problem. This play by DC Moore, part lesbian Catherine Cookson fantasy, part undead horror slasher, via a Wicker Man of the woods and fields, isn’t actually about much at all. Moore’s central fascination seems to be Mary’s selfishness, but this quickly becomes so farcically exaggerated that we scarcely care about her: indeed, the production’s finest moment is Mary’s lynching by the rest of the village just before the interval, a splendid scene which conjured my full and wholehearted sympathy – just pass me a pitchfork – but sadly this most irritating of characters came back to life for an entirely pointless second act. Moore fails to convey anything interesting about love, incest, being undead, or the social ill of enclosure, which is never properly explained, or functionally connected to the lives of the villagers in a moving way, nor indeed genuinely integrated into the plot. He also appears to claim a world without spirituality, while focusing his plot on real-life resurrection. In short, this is a muddled, missed opportunity of a play, which (by way of zero change) brings a sophisticated character from the metropolis to stir up the lives of ye backward locals, all of whom come from different corners of England, some from more than one, judging by their mobile, inconsistent faux-rural accents. It’s playwriting as if Jerusalem – that mad, brilliant, beautiful paean of Englishness, class and the rural world – just never happened.

Director Jeremy Herrin does a stellar job with DC Moore’s clunky ideas, with wonderful group choreography (did I mention that brilliant lynching?) and decent tension in individual scenes, which momentarily draw us into a few interesting scenarios; the fact we never actually care for those characters is Moore’s fault, not Herrin’s.  Nor is it the fault of the actors, who mostly do their best with Moore’s gawky script; fine performances in particular from Trevor Fox as Geordie enforcer Heron, Lois Chimimba doubling a rather dim-witted Eggy Tom with an altogether more interesting Young Hannah, and Brian Doherty as affecting Irish foreman Graham. However, apart from forcing his actors to speak like Yoda every few lines in the name, presumably, of poeticism (“Burn gone this unfine village” – indeed), Moore deploys swearwords like AK47 bullets across his script, wielding them with about as much subtlety and fascinating power as foam arrows. Anne-Marie Duff gets the worst, and filthiest, lines, presumably because Moore is most anxious (rightly) about his failed central character, and consequently takes his shock tactics to the max. But it just alienates Duff’s smug, canny and cold performance all the further from our suspension of disbelief.

Richard Hudson’s set and costumes are stunning, especially the masks for the mischievous villagers, all conjuring creatures from nature made of tendrils, leaves, animal skulls and towering grasses. Paule Constable’s lighting design creates silhouettes and giant shadows to gorgeous effect. And, once we get beyond lynching to disembowelling and cutting people’s hearts out, it all looks deliciously, stickily real. Sadly, however, we just don’t care.


At the National Theatre, SE1 until 5 August

Box office: 020 7452 3000

Rating: Two

2 meece rating

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ANNIE Piccadilly theatre, W1


If Nikolai Foster’s production of Annie came in a tin, it would prove to be exactly what the label promised. Feelgood, joyful, corny, gorgeous. Ruby Stokes’ chirpy first-night Annie manages to deliver a flawless first “Tomorrow” even while having her face licked by a large hairy dog (a labradoodle, anachronistic for 1934 but hey, who cares?). The orphans are choreographed with ferocious playfulness and naturalism – no eyes ’n teeth artificiality and some cracking good bucket-and-mop percussion work in “It’s a hard Knock Life. The natural mode of adult group emotional expression is,, of course, the tap-dance, both in and out of natty sailor-suits. The set, framed in jigsaw pieces of the old NY street map, turns featly from orphanage to Hooverville shanty to mansion, radio station and cabinet room without wasting a minute.

And as the tin promised, the first entry of the villainous oppressor Miss Hannigan is met with a deafening cheer from stalls and circles. For it’s Miranda Hart: a national TV treasure too long absent from both singleton horseplay and retro midwifery. She’s back, storming a West End debut as beneath the part’s entertainingly drunken malevolence there bubbles the familiar gleeful larkiness. This is a pratfalling, artfully hapless comedienne whose every gawk and absurdity is calculated with the professional finesse of a Chaplin.  She can put across a song, too, at times swooping down to a near- baritone range which dips below even Alex Bourne’s sonorous Daddy Warbucks.


The show (for whose London debut in 1978 I was sent to interview an endless line of auditioning tots outside the VIctoria Palace) is of course a fairytale, a fond imagining of childish gallantry in the Great Depression. Who does not sigh with nostalgia at the idea that a lonely unmarried billionaire could innocently summon up an orphan to share his fifth avenue Christmas, even specifying hair colour? Who knew that Roosevelt’s New Deal was inspired by the optimism of a pigtailed ginger orphan carolling “The sun’ll be out tomorrow!” in the Cabinet room? Or that a Republican billionaire would soften towards FDR (“Find out what Democrats eat!”) until together America , orphans and all, could walk to the sunlit uplands. While, of course, foiling a plot by Hannigan and her crooked brother (Jonny Fines is a fine Rooster, Djalenga Scott a perfect bad-broad).



Actually, so entangled are we today with the absurdities of US politics that I found myself nodding in relief at the way Bourne is playing Daddy WArbucks shaven-headed,not a blond lock real or fake in sight, presumably in order to stop us musing about parallels between another billionaire businessman who can “summon up the FBI” and call detectives off the Capone case when he has a personal issue to resolve…

Perish the thought. Such dark cynicisms are unfit for an Annie audience. Stick with the joyfulness, the crazy optimism, the triumph of simple goodness and the leaping exuberant orphans. Stokes is a lovely Annie, and I am sure the other two alternates are as well, and the orphan ensemble are terrific. But you’ll be in particular luck if you hit on a night when a mop-headed Nicole Subebe,on a professional debut, is playing Molly the smallest orphan with extreme pizzazz, drop-dead timing and glee. Every time she and the mob spill onto the stage the energy rises. The child is yeast.


Box office 0844 871 7630 to Jan 2018 (Miranda Hart until 17 Sept)
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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From caravans in little greens and fields, Velasquez figures emerge into the hastily erected big Top in silks and plackets, ruffs and feathers and frilled pantaloons and cloth-of-gold cloaks: more Renaissance costumes than you’ll see in a week of modern Stratford. This classiest of village-green circuses always likes to have a theme, and this year it is called ANY PORT IN A STORM, and something to do with “a lost kingdom of the sea” melded with “the dark, closed and highly formal world of the Spanish court”.

Not that you’d think there was a sea theme, unless you buy a nicely eloquent and colourful programme – where they’re all posed chiaroscuro as portraits – and invent some mad sea-story to fit the various acts. It isn’t as literal as it was when a few years back Nell Gifford decided to turn the entire show into a retelling of War and Peace, complete with a marching goose. This is just very classy circus, international acts directed by Cal McCrystal with minimal ringmastering from David Pillukat, some stamping flamenco interludes and a comic heart in the great Tweedy the clown (sometimes looking unnervingly like Mark Rylance in one of his nuttier parts).



Oh, and interventions from some remarkably well-trained chickens. Especially the fluffy white one which between acts marches disdainfully all alone round the velvet rim of the entire ring, ignoring small children holding out their hands towards it.

McCrystal, master of physical theatre direction, keeps it sharp and fast-paced : sometimes the acrobatics are comic, sometimes startling (a swing act in particular). One is gently beautiful: Sergii Poliakov, “Acrobata Celestial” in renaissance silks strikes graceful poses on a harpsichord while a baroque soprano sings alongside.



The clowning, let me reassure coulrophobes, is un-traditionally theatrical (Tweedy’s attempted escapology is memorable). A highspot in the second half is when he, with the acrobatic Mustache Brothers and Pillukat, perform a “tribute” to all the other acts so far: hobby-horses, desperately failed acrobatics and a wicked drag parody of the traditionally pole-dancery poses of circus girls. That is quite brilliant. But the whole show ensures that there will never be a dull moment in its two hours, and that your candyfloss sugar-rush endures. – touring on to Blenheim, Oxford, Chiswick and points west till 24 Sept

rating   four diverse mice Meece with mask tiny compressedTouring Mouse widelibby, christmas catComedy Mouse

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THE ISLAND Southwark Playhouse , SE1




For the first fifteen of the hundred minutes no word is spoken by the two men in ragged prison cottons: Edward Dede as the younger Winston, Mark Springer a powerful monolithic figure as John. As we sit around silent, almost awkward,they mime intense labour. Muscles gleam, sweat breaks, as they lift and shovel and push and strain with harsh breaths. It becomes oppressive. It is meant to. John Terry’s direction does not spare us because nothing spared these prisoners. Athol Fugard’s play about Robben Island, where Mandela spent 27years to 1988, needs to make it clear that what the political internees endured was not only imprisonment but enslavement.


He wrote the play in collaboration with John Kani and Winston Ntshona, the originals of these two characters, who performed it for many years (and several arrests) during the years when the island was still in use, its very name forbidden. It has become a modern classic, a hard and dour and ultimately redemptive vision of endurance and imagination. The two men, once released (and releasing us) from the day’s labour sit with their bedrolls and single cell bucket and begin to talk, to plan, to become the humans they are and no longer labouring beasts. In a moment of sudden piercing pathos John says of the sweltering beach they work on “same old sea sand I used to play with when I was young..”.



They are to perform a version of the trial of Antigone at a prison concert (this happened) and there is humour and no small conflict as John, the more educated, nags Winston about his part; they bring out the pathetic props – Creon’s tin-lid medallion, Antigone’s daft rope-ringleted wig and necklace of nails. It seems as if Winston won’t do it: but their bond is strong, built on their shared, consoling fantasies: of phone calls home or acted-out nights at the “bioscope”. Tha word jolted me with familiarity: I hadn’t heard cinema called that since I was a child in Johannesburg, a diplo-brat as aghast as my parents during the apartheid years .



The simple account – jolted again by the agony of both after hearing that John will be released in three months. Winston agonizes because he has years to run; John – in a way only prisoners can understand – because the very act of counting days, fearing and hoping, is a new and strange kind of pain in itself. Winston overcomes his fear of mockery in the daft wig as John teaches him the great theatrical lesson “behind all this rubbish is me…if they laugh at the beginning and listen at the end…”. Antigone’s trial is performed. One of the oldest stories of law, power, injustice and rightfulness in the world, yet still we hold our breath. Southwark is its last point on the tour: it is a co-production with Chipping Norton and The Dukes Lancaster. It has lost none of its pity and terror.

box office 020 7407 0234 to 24 June
rating four 4 Meece Rating

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TWITSTORM Park Theatre, N4


This little  theatre is on a roll, catching topicalities as they fly. After David Henry Hwang’s wonderful CHINGLISH. about trade with China, this play by Chris England is the ultimate British mediaclass, middleclass, middle-aged nightmare. As such it is, of course, enjoyably vicious on every level. It was time that both social media pieties and the snarky, jokes-are-sacred comedi-ocracy both got a good slapping-about, and here it is. England’s tale, performed with frighteningly recognizable accuracy and directed with glee by Jonathan Guy Lewis, is about a Twitterstorm: the contumely that falls with tedious regularity on public figures who step out of line in a world whose hobby is taking offence.

Screens overhead give us arch or vapid tweets, and then a blast of “Arguing the Toss”, a TV comedy chat-show halfway between Piers Morgan and Charlie Brooker: all sarky superiority and scripted gags. Below it, in a smart urban kitchen, meet its host Guy, our pleasingly dislikeable hero. Jason Merrells gets him to the last detail: a man forever hovering between sincerely felt grumpiness and tiresome auto-banter (he’s the kind of man who calls his patio barbie “the Klaus”). His sweet-natured charity-supporting wife Bex writes chick-lit novels he despises, and has a direct debit to sponsor a “Child 4 Africa”. They are suppressing their post-Christian smugness to schmooze their child into a faith school . Oh yes: the only thing missing on Anthony Lamble’s set is an unread Guardian.



Like all propsperous bien-pensants they have serfs. Lumbering amongst them in Lycra, having cycled miles every day to write Guy’s jokes for him, is Justin Edwards as Guy’s old pal Neil, who the star and his manager secretly plan to dump. The pair used to do fringe shows together as “The Potato People” – very Edinburgh – and now Neil just writes Guy’s endearing daily tweets to reinforce the brand. But a stranger comes to the door, a cuckoo in the nest not unconnected to Bex’s charitable direct-debit. And a chain of events, driven largely by Guy’s own smug comedic persona, leads towards comeuppance.



Never mind exactly how. I won’t spoil a fun plot which tips over at the end into eventful improbability. . And which also reminds us, among other things, how thin the partitions are these days between comfy middle England and Africa’s failing states. There are masses of one-line jokes of suitable tastelessness, an artful navigation round the n-word (never spoken) and a rare banana-skin moment which does not even involve taking the skin off the banana. There is also a nice moral turnaround, as PC rage implodes and eats its own backside. And there’s a beautiful, deadpan, deliciously hateable star turn by Ben Kavanagh as a gender-fluid ponytailed PC smugatron with a video blog.



The performances are beautifully judged all round: whether in the moment when Guy’s cool-dude persona slips into unadmitted middle age as he has to peer, without reading-glasses, at the unfolding twitstorm on someone else’s phone, or in the body language of Justin Edwards’ amiably hapless Neil or Claire Goose’s patient appalled Bex. The author himself plays the horrified agent.



But most of all I loved Tom Moutchi as Ike the interloper, all African openness and an impoverished dignity calculated to spread unease. It is necessary that we should never be quite sure whether his innocence is real or not: Moutchi carries this manner off with delicate mischief. Apparently he is an instagram star himself among under-25s, but I don’t see why they should get all the fun. So I am looking him up.



box office 0207 870 6876 to 1 July
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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