Monthly Archives: July 2017

QUEEN ANNE Theatre Royal, Haymarket WC1

A MODERN WORLD GROWING, BENEATH THE PERIWIGS

 

 

I saw Helen Edmundson’s marvellous RSC history-play about Anne’s short reign some eighteen months ago; the review is here – http://tinyurl.com/y7u6ydas – a gurgle of pleasure and interest, background sketched in, and five mice-worth concluding with a plea for a transfer.

 

 

So here it is: some cast changes to note, though all more than up to standard. Natalie Abrahami’s cast again centres on Emma Cunniffe’s Anne, touchingly needy then increasingly determined, a woman of sorrows growing into wisdom and a matriarchal affection for the people tormented by war and poverty. Romola Garai becomes the schemingly glamorous Sarah Churchill, Chu Omanbala the great, flawed General Churchill, and Jonny Glynn Swift leading the tavern mob. Hywel Morgan takes over as the endearingly hopeless Prince George, but Carl Prekopp is back as Defoe, and Beth Park reprises her role as the strong, plain, skinny, scornful and decent Abigail.

 

 

 

But I return to it fascinated, because it feels different, stronger even, on this second viewing – in the capital, and in a country which since the first production has become more startlingly riven and confused . Although the personal relationships and court struggles are as fascinating, and the riotous satirical interludes among tavern wags still make our own satirists seem restrainedly wet, I found that the politics resonated far more strongly.

 

 

Wars in Europe, plotters and spinners surrounding power, uneasy alliances and a borderline superstitious horror of religious fanatics at the door (Catholics in this case). There is even a stock market crash scare, and a looming budget deficit, and peculation and bribery in high places, and a tendency in a male hierarchy to feel suspicious and thwarted at any display of “rampant femininity”. Edmundson’s delicate rhythm and powerful bursts of monosyllable (“What mean the Scots? What irks them now?”) are as fresh and sharp as ever. Seek out the bargains. Don’t miss it.

 

 

 

Box Office   020 7930 8800 trh.co.uk to 30 September

rating: still five  5 Meece Rating

 

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LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR AND GRILL Wyndham’s , WC1

A GREAT HEART AND TALENT,  REMEMBERED WITH LOVE

 

O my days! If you have any feeling for jazz and blues, for women, music or the historic trials and triumphs of black America, don’t think of missing this. Fight your way in. In ninety intense, absorbing minutes is distilled a troubled spirit and a half-century of change. As a performance it is unique, electric: as a tribute to a great performer it more than equals Tracie Bennett’s remarkable evocation of Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow.

 

 

This time the subject is Billie Holiday, in the last year of her life: high and drunk and needing to tell her stories in the womblike, midnight world of a run-down Philadelphia jazz club. Tables are scattered on stage and in front of the stalls; the reality of the lamplit setting has a jazz trio playing moodily onstage before the start, with Neville Malcolm astonishing on the bass and Frankie Tontoh jokey and slick on the drums. It draws you into a world.

 

 

Audra McDonald is the real thing. As a singer of course: she catches Holiday’s strength and vulnerability, high moments, delicate phrasing and despairing growl. But equally her acting is shatteringly real: intense, sincere, witty, troubling. Lanie Robertson’s play is rather a marvel too: never a false note. It was written after hearing a friend’s account of a real day in 1959 when, at just such a club, washed-up and unreliable the Lady staggered in with her little dog and performed a handful of songs to half a dozen patrons. She did not have long to live with a weak heart, a heroin habit, a year in jail for possession, a long humiliation by the US colour bar, and a constantly refilled glass. But she was a legend. And the legend is served here with heart-stopping sincerity.
McDonald staggers, giggles, growls, but suddenly straightens, lets herself be carried by the music, a true Lady in white ballgown. She remembers the wonder of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, her mother “the duchess” at the cat-house, the no-good husband who got her onto heroin and her friend the sax player Prez who tried to get her off it. A hard wit condemns Philadelphia as a “ratsass” place , especially its white police who “after dey freed coloured people, dont know what to do with them, so dey lock us up again”. She jibes cheerfully at white people – “like us, only meaner” – but tearfully remembers how Artie Shaw’s white band would eat with her in the kitchen -paying double – when “coloureds” were not allowed in a restaurant, and how when refused use of the lavatory she took revenge.

 

 

She barracks her pianist Jimmy (Shelton Becton) as he visibly tries to coax her out of rambling and into each new number. There’s real tension in that: the drama (directed by Lonny Price with tight attention) rises with some flare of temper, evoking the real uncertainty of a failing maverick talent. Late in the show “Strange Fruit” carries real shock, as it always has done; but is followed by her vanishing offstage, awkward apologies and claims of medical problems from the pianist, and a sudden return of the diva, happily clutching a real chihuaha which licks her face as she belts out “T’aint nobody’s business”.
Go if you can. You’ll not forget it.

 

 

box office https://tickets.delfontmackintosh.co.uk to 9 Sept.
rating five   5 Meece Rating

 

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COMMITTEE Donmar, WC1

THE MIRACLE THAT FAILED

 

 

The subtitle is “The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee Takes Oral Evidence on Whitehall’s Relationship with Kids’ Company”. Josie Rourke, with Hadley Fraser and Tom Deering’s music, has made a sort of opera from the verbatim public record of that day in October 2015, when the most normally “un-sexy” of Select Committees, under Bernard Jenkin MP, interrogated Camila Batmanghelidjh, who founded and led the charity for two decades, and her Chairman Alan Yentob.

 

 

 

It had gone broke, salaries unpaid, and abruptly closed after accepting over the years £ 42m of public subsidy including a final, desperate £3m emergency bung. Indeed the rather cruel payoff is Batmanghelidh’s indignant “On what basis have you decided this is a failing charity?” and Jenkin’s “Because it’s gone bust!”. She, however, is allowed one last majestic aria about poor and abused children failed by the state.

 

 

 

Which, of course, they often are. And that derogation of social duty, erosion of social services and lack of trust in public organization is one reason that KidsCo lasted so long, a refuge and succour to its “self-referred” young clients. It impressed many ministers and donors, ticked the box for Cameron’s ‘big society’, and was allowed to suck up public money with little oversight by its puffed-up, self-satisfied networking-freak of a chairman. Who, in a rare descent into plain speaking, replied to the question of why they didn’t “restructure” with the words “We believed the government was going to give us more money”.

 

 

It is a fascinating and still unresolved story, not least because of the exuberant, eccentric figure of Camila herself; and the way a select committee works is actually not undramatic, especially when made surreal as the panel rise up, sing choruses (“We want to learn! This is not a show trial, we want to learn!” ) or read written statements from outside witnesses. The interrogators are all pitch-perfect, with that characteristic MP-mixture of earnest administrator and “showbiz-for-ugly-people”. Notably there is Alexander Hanson’s urbanely civil Jenkin, Liz Robertson’s sarky Cheryl Gillan, Rosemary Ashe as the maverick Kate Hoey and the Welsh terrier Paul Flynn (Anthony O’Donnell).

 

 

 

But of course the focus is on the odd couple who sit before them (and are seen up on screens, and occasionally rise to pace the floor, singing) . Sandra Marvin is unnervingly like Camila in multicoloured dress and turban, gait, high-pitched speech, and unnerving smile: when she sings the sincerity of both the woman’s good intentions and her dangerous self-belief are gloriously magnified. As Yentob, Omar Ebrahim is not quite the cornered-rat one remembers from the TV relay (possibly because he’s a splendid baritone, which gives a Verdiesque dignity even to his absurdities, like the notorious claim he signed off that without more money London would see “riots and looting”) . But he does often catch the pompous worry of a man addicted to citing powerful friends and colleagues who approve of him: the PM, Michael Gove, the “Chairman of WH Smith”, big banks, whoever….
 

 

So it’s all there: the Camila flakiness, the Chairman’s complacency, the dark unseen hinterland of tragic young lives, and the clash between idealism and safe administrative procedure. You reflect, watching and listening to Batmanghelidjh,, that giving – financially and emotionally – is a satisfying addiction, and can if imprudent bring you down. As for Yentob, the reflection is that thinking well of yourself and collecting plaudits from grand friends is probably another addictive behaviour. So what we had here was a kind of folie-a-deux. If the Chair had been some tough, clever, unimpressable terrier of a manager, we might still have the charity.

 

 

But is this good drama? Not really. The sense of going round in circles of irritable mutual misunderstanding – which that hearing of course did – means it feels unresolved, even sometimes dull. Despite the pair’s arias, you get little sense of the diverse realities of these unseen children. None of the outside written submissions , for instance, reflect the large number of clients (one of whom, a friend, was sitting next to me) who saw it close up. Especially those who were initially helped and grateful, owe KidsCo a lot and give it thanks, yet had firmly to disentangle themselves from the therapeutic emotionalism of the increasingly dominant foundress as they grew up. There’s a whole other play there. But this one may, in going off at half-cock, have stopped that happening for a few years at least.

 

 

box office 0844 871 7624 to February 2017
Principal Sponsor Barclays.
Rating two  2 meece rating

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