Monthly Archives: September 2017

RULES FOR LIVING Royal, Northampton & Touring



I didn’t much rate its premiere at the National in 2015, despite the achingly chic set I felt was “a kitchen-diner so huge and smart it makes David Cameron’s look poky”. Sam Holcroft’s blackish comedy about a dysfunctional family Christmas, culminating in a very fine food-fight , never quite took off for me: never felt credible despite a top cast. To the extent that I got grumbly about one or two overly obvious gags, like the hyperactive son’s-girlfriend Carrie breaking a precious ornament to a cry of “It was my father’s!”.



But here’s a thing. In this new English Touring Theatre version directed by Simon Godwin and set in a less futuristic, more cosily domestic scene and in a proscenium theatre, it comes to life and moves closer to Ayckbournian quality. Holcroft’s idea is that people work by a set of rules, colourfully projected overhead, as in some nightmarish devised card game (one takes place in the second act). Thus Matthew can’t lie unless he’s sitting down and eating, his girlfriend Carrie has to dance around when joking until someone laughs, and Edith must self-medicate and clean things to keep herself calm, and so forth.



Sometimes this feels unnecessary and even intrusive, but at other times gets excellent laughs in its own right. The background to the idea is about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which discusses the use and misuse of rules which may be unachievable: Adam’s daughter Emma is upstairs refusing to get up for family dinner and suffering from fatigue syndrome, and early on there is anguished conversation about the psychological element which may be part of it. Though the fact that her mother Nicole has banished her ineffective husband to the Travelodge might be not unconnected to, as might uncle Matthew’s mawkish emotional dependence on his sister-in-law…




And so forth. But this time (maybe there were tweaks to the script as well?) the play feels unforced and rather touching. Jane Booker is quite wonderful as Edith the compulsively-cleaning, make-it-all-lovely mother, her comic timing fabulous. There’s great work from Carlyss Peer as the hyper Carrie and from  the infuriating Adam who uses accents and impersonations to disguise his sense of  not being wholly himself : both are very annoying characters who pull off the difficult trick of just managing not to alienate the actual audience. And Paul Shelley as the dreadful, monosyllabic, strokebound old wretch of a father does some high-quality scowling beneath his paper hat and – during the worst mayhem – sits eating a sprout on a fork with a magnificent satyr leer I cannot forget.


So it works. And the food fight is just as good as the one at the NT. Kev McCurdy as Fight Director , take a bow. until Sat 30 Sept but then TOURING  Touring Mouse wide
Cambridge next!

rating four   4 Meece Rating



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INK up West Duke of York’s WC1




Nipping late into the Almedia after the opening,   I concurred with every word of Luke Jones’ review on (still up, scroll down).

“Solid stunner of a play…sprawling real-life tale of competing egos, morals and ideas of Britain and of the press…snappy and dramatic condensation…director Rupert Goold ensures nothing is extraneous…whip through like a snappy TV drama..”


Bang right. But having seen it again up West – with the cast solidly settled, never a duff moment – there are other praiseful reflections I would want to add. Carvel’s Murdoch is remarkable, adopting a forward-pressing, tense keen hunch (almost his Trunchbull hunch) denoting a young(ish) man in a hurry, and in a temper with the hidebound old country which has snubbed him often enough. The rendering of his TV interviewer with a scornful snob is beautifully imagined. This is a hater of establishments, a newspaper professional with ink in his blood who impatiently says he could reconfigure the presses for tabloid with his own hands, and bloody well will if there’s any lip from print unions (at whose old power one shudders). It is no simplistic portrait: here’s a populist and a man of power, yet a shy one who dislikes the limelight; a ruthless man but one who when horror approaches his actual friends, is struck with proper pain. He kicks scornfully aside old shibboleths like not covering TV – because “its our rival!’ as the old guard say. Cudlipp’s speech about how populism leads to fascism resonates today all right, strongly enough (Graham makes sure of that) but so does the rising Sun’s desire to acknowledge that the chin-stroking bien-pensant establishment can’t have it all its own way. “What do people want?” asks Richard Coyle’s driven, tense Larry Lamb, and his hilariously ramshackle staff answer one by one and arrive at booze, fags, gossip, telly, free stuff, jokes. The portrait of Joyce Hopkirk by Sophie Stanton is irresistible: one forgets how dreary “women’s” pages were until then.




There is real understanding here, a real kick of freedom, and when the figures rise gradually towards the Mirror’s, it is impossible not to share the triumph. But by the time they top it, the scene has darkened. In the interval, after a first half of almost solid laughter punctuated only by sly enjoyment and caricature, a veteran journalist friend told me that he had covered something terrible at the time, the case of the horrible murder of Muriel McKay, wife of Murdoch’s deputy, in a bungled kidnap attempt meant for his own wife. The implication was that this merry comedy was airbrushign it. What he – a newcomer to the play who hadn’t read reviews – did not know was that in the second half, the murder happens.



Graham uses this piece of history – startlingly intwerwoven with the birth of Page 3 and the pain of its first model – with delicate, shocking skill. It darkens a comedy into a play of real depth; Coyle’s Lamb stands before us scarred by the moral cost of victory, Murdoch by real human pain of his loss. Comedy has edged to tragedy; the black tide of ink falls across Bunny Christie’s evocative, nostalgic hot-metal set. It is top, top storytelling.: moral history, on a par with This House. Don’t miss it.



box office to 6 Jan
rating still five!   5 Meece Rating

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While there are many excellent reasons to read Virgil’s Aeneid from cover to cover, more than once, the fourth book of the great Roman epic (Dido’s abandonment by Aeneas and subsequent suicide) has perhaps inspired more artistic reactions than the whole of the rest of the poem put together in art, music, and literature. Christopher Marlowe’s beautifully detailed, erudite retelling of Dido’s fatal passion draws on Aeneid Book 1 as well as the seminal Book 4, plus Ovid’s moving and often witty Heroides, to produce a sensitive, rounded love story powered throughout by original classical sources, all gleaming with the fresh, lyrically romantic firepower of Marlowe’s verse. Aeneas, fleeing Troy, is shipwrecked on the shores of Carthage, where his mother Venus decides it would be terribly helpful if Dido were to fall in love with him, just so she can get his ships mended in order to convey the hero on to Italy, where fate requires his presence. However, these self-serving immortal wiles provoke a storm of raw human emotions which, when finally thwarted by an unmoved destiny, ensures no one survives intact (and many don’t survive at all: we end up with a positive heap of bodies on stage).

Director Kimberley Sykes opens proceedings with a cruel party on Olympus, the gods behaving (or misbehaving) with callous disregard for themselves and one another to brash music which veers between deconstructed jazz and rock guitar. While we get off to a literally jarring note, one lovely touch is that the gods can conjure, adjust or extinguish music throughout with a swirl of their fingers, and can manipulate light in the same way. The stage is filled with grey sand, projecting far out into the audience, while a recessed section at the back soon shows us, through sheets of lashing rain, Aeneas’ sailors lit by flashes of lightning as they cling to ropes. Ti Green’s elegant, functional design thus provides plenty of open playing space, as well as opportunities for magically beautiful effects with light (sometimes combined with water) by Ciaran Bagnall. While the gods are in contemporary evening gear (Venus gets sparkly purple trainers and a leopardskin coat for her Tyrian huntress disguise), mortal costumes look generally classical, with the Carthaginians in loose, flowing gowns with large African prints, which they lend to the ragged Trojans as an early sign of friendship.

The cast are not smooth, but we see truly impressive central performances from Sandy Grierson as a thrillingly emotional, endlessly pessimistic Aeneas and Chipo Chung as a poised, noble and yet fragile Dido, whose descent into desperate, doubt-riven passion is as convincing as it is heartbreaking. Tom McCall is nicely brisk and determined as Achates, Aeneas’ trusted (and ever practical) companion at arms, and Amber James is a poignantly cheerful Anna, whose heartwarming smile becomes more fixed as her own dreams and plans fall by the wayside. Bridgitta Roy’s sashaying, vengeful Juno and Ellie Beaven’s manipulative, needy Venus balance each other nicely. Sykes requires incessant striding around the stage and lots of blokeishly tactile physicality from her cast, which can irritate after a while, but energy levels stay generously high. When her characters are allowed to employ stillness, particularly in the tragic final scenes, a new intensity is achieved. Still, I found my tears came at the beginning: Aeneas’ cry of anguish to his disguised mother as she leaves him once again, a line I can’t read in Latin without crying either.


Rating: Three 3 Meece Rating

At the Swan Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon until 28 October 2017. Box office: 01789 403 493

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CORIOLANUS RSC, Stratford Upon Avon


Coriolanus doesn’t often hit the modern stage: its plot, a hymn to the necessary evil of educated patrician privilege in order to provide for the politically fickle, unthinking plebeian multitude, doesn’t sit at all well with modern political correctness. Even in an age of Remoaning, as the failed political class continue to wring their well-manicured hands across the media at a wider populace daring to voice their disenchanted perspective on the world, the entrenched snobbery of Coriolanus can scarcely be rehabilitated for us – especially in this politically incoherent production from Angus Jackson for the RSC, which tries very hard (in line with modern tastes) to back the plebeians, and ends up fighting the play itself as a result. Jackson turns the plebeian tribunes Sicinius Veletus and Junius Brutus into left-wing female politicians, who thus arrive on the modern stage endowed with the composure of genuine moral authority; their conniving treachery, implied hypocrisy and final, catastrophic pursuit of self-interest are barely criticised by Jackson, who meanwhile does his best to discredit the elite, yet fails. Shakespeare has already exposed the problems at the top of this society, but simultaneously provides the strongest possible argument for their maintenance by revealing the steadily grosser inadequacies all the way down the food chain; his original narrative arc shines through in spite of Jackson’s direction, rather than thanks to it.

The production looks wonderfully slick: a clean black stage, with buildings from grain stores to palaces cleverly contrived by sliding metal walls, with curtains to soften lines for interior scenes, and the public marketplace indicated by rolled-on mountains of steel seating and podiums which rise immaculately from the floor. The judicious inclusion of a couple of classical statues remind us of Rome, although we could be in any global city where the rich have become socially isolated and disconnected from the poor, whose approval they nevertheless require to wield power. Lighting by Richard Howell is smart, dramatic and exciting, but fight scenes fail to gel, as men in contemporary combat dress swipe at each other inappropriately with swords: a hand-to-hand tussle between Coriolanus and his enemy Aufidius feels more convincingly violent. The elite often appear in black tie, while the plebeians wear hoodies and baseball caps: both feel like tired, over-obvious stereotypes, particularly when improbably brought together on one stage. Meanwhile, very subtle distinctions in uniform between Romans and Volscians don’t make for clear storytelling in battle scenes, nor does the monochrome, placeless setting give us any convincing narrative context for their continuous aggression. However, Coriolanus’ ego-driven mistakes still rise to a satisfying psychological boiling point in the second half, diction and delivery are superb throughout, and the whole thing is worth watching for Haydn Gwynne’s magnificent Volumnia, a Roman matriarch of blood-curdling power and magnetic presence, elegantly supported by Hannah Morrish as a delicate, vulnerable Virgilia. Paul Jesson’s urbane, avuncular and surprisingly brave Menenius is another treat. Sope Dirisu’s crisp, soldierly but ultimately too straightforward Coriolanus is overshadowed by James Corrigan’s altogether more emotionally sophisticated Aufidius, who finally proves himself a better warrior in words; the one battlefield where Coriolanus is tragically fated to always lose.


Rating: Three 3 Meece Rating

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OSLO Lytellton, SE1



This is a three-hour historical political play about Middle East negotiations in the 1990s: and it is absolutely thrilling. Pins you to your seat with tension, breaks an audience into sudden barks of laughter – either of relaxation or relief – and in its dénouement wins a tear. It tells the story of back-channel negotiations between two enemies of forty bitter years: the PLO led by Yasser Arafat, and the Israeli government under Rabin and Shimon Peres. Over nine months in 92-93, a Norwegian academic called Terje Rod-Larsen and his wife Mona Juul (now ambassador here) decided that since their country was perceivedly neutral, it might be possible to set up private, secret talks before – and outside of – the official Washington conference.



With oblique, minimal official agreement from Mona’s ministers, fixing their own hire cars and secret venue, the pair juggled telephone calls and bluffs, called in favours (“Norway is a very small country”) and got it started. The inspiration was idealistic: they had visited Israel, he blown away by how “fantastically not Norwegian!” it was, and both shaken by the grief and waste of bombings and shootings. They knew it would be fraught. “You don’t make peace with people you’d have dinner parties with. You make peace with people who shoot you and bomb your buses”. They also had to accept that the first participants had to be diplomatic, if not positively secretive, with their own superiors back home.



But they did it. The optimistic dilettante non-diplomat Larsen felt that the “grip of history was loosening’ as the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union fell, and that informality beat cards-on-the-table negotiations . He plunged into it in a feet-first spirit (Toby Stephens is often very funny in the part) while his wife, a junior diplomat played by Lydia Leonard with a marvellous quiet grace, took a more professional, exasperated but always hopeful approach. They got far closer to peace than anything dreamed of before: Rabin and Arafat shook hands and signed in Washington on 23 September, 1993:later, when the Israeli premier was assassinated by an extremist of his own nation, Arafat wept.


J.T.Rogers’ play won a Tony, and deserves it for a perfectly paced, intensely clear structure combining direct documentary-style explanation with fast-sparking dramatic dialogue. Bartlett Sher’s direction is equally clear and fast, and the performances remarkable. Indeed very seldom do you remember you are watching performances. You think you’re seeing, with the hopeful young Larsens, the pairs of real adversaries matching and fighting their inherited hatreds. There is a degree of comedy (not least in Paul Herzberg iand Thomas Arnold as economics professors in scruffy raincoats, the nearest Israel would come at first to deliberately unofficial envoys) and moments of tenser astonishment . One comes when Philip Arditti , as the senior Israeli negotiator who eventually in a moment of extreme détente does an impression of a rather camp is Yasser Arafat, and doesn’t get shot down for it by the PLO men . Another memorable scene sees Arditti and Peter Polycarpou as the PLO man persuaded after a nasty scene to take a late night walk in the woods together, when they find that both their daughters have the same name: Maya. That semitic closeness of Arab and Jew…


At these moments, holding your breath, you do pay mental tribute to the actors. But you are looking through them , as you should be, marvelling at history and hope. And danger. As the communist PLO man Hassan, Nabil Elouahabi is tremendous, a tense ball of fury from his first refusal to be jovial (“the petit-bourgeois concept of family does not interest me”) who moves through sullenness and anger to acceptance.



It is a story which should be told. And which, at a time when not only is the West wondering if it can ever talk to ISIS, but when our own little shenanigan finds Britain and Europe less than inspiring as negotiators. One dreams of such a back-channel for Brexit. In the lighter moments of this play Geraldine Alexander , as Tori the kindly Norwegian housekeeper wound in folksy plaits, plies the smouldering negotiatiors with vanilla waffles. We could do with her in Brussels.



box office 020 7452 3333
to 23 sept Then at Harold PInter Theatre in West end but tks from NT

Rating: five  5 Meece Rating


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THE PEDLAR OF SWAFFHAM John Peel Arts Centre, IP14


In Norfolk, we tend to be quietly, fondly proud of our surroundings – with an emphasis on ‘quietly.’ The tradition of Norfolk understatement is legendary, rivalled only by our keen attachment to the smooth horizons and vast skies which dominate our severe rural landscape. Accordingly, it shouldn’t have surprised me (as a local) that I had never heard the Norfolk folktale of John Chapman, the dreaming pedlar who found a fortune buried in his garden and used it generously to restore his beloved town of Swaffham, even though the story is almost six hundred years old; because we don’t shout about things, most of the time, round here.

However, we should. Alan Huckle has dusted off the pedlar’s adventure for posterity, bringing Chapman’s story of dreaming conviction and calm defiance to life for a new generation, and giving his characters plenty to sing (if not shout) about, in a simple, clean production with minimal scenery, Medieval costumes and natural Norfolk accents. Swaffham is in thrall to the evil Lord Thomas Styward (a joyously dastardly Alan Bolton), the town crumbling into disrepair as Styward siphons off taxes into his own coffers. Chapman, though penniless, proclaims that he will himself start the fund for the town’s restoration, by following the instructions of his dream to find treasure; and he actually finds not one treasure, but two, in the course of the plot, stubbornly clinging to his dreams in the face of hardship and ridicule. Styward, meanwhile, has unpleasant matrimonial designs on Chapman’s pretty daughter Margaret (Beth Spaul), who is already warmly attached to the bashful shepherd Garth (Gary Stodel); other Swaffham noblemen grow progressively more suspicious of Styward; and three angry Essex farmers are battling Styward in a dispute over land, now turning ugly. Throw a spectral, unscrupulous yet dim henchman into the mix (Rob Backhouse as the well-named Mudworthy), a couple of fabulously no-nonsense alehouse landladies (April Secrett as Rosie, Cherryl Jeffries as Desima) and some strong company scenes – complete with a dog on stage – and quite an evening’s entertainment unfurls.

Standout central performances from Tim Hall, gloriously clear-voiced as a lovable and ultimately admirable John Chapman, and Julie Bolton as his superbly strong, straight-talking wife Catheryne, with skilled support from Peter Sowerbutts as Rauf Yolgrave, lift this production from earnest am-dram into something altogether more genuine and interesting. Huckle’s score, with piano and violin accompaniment occasionally fleshed out by drums on stage, is at its best in catchy, folk-inspired numbers: from the rollicking, sprightly “Never believe in dreams” and “The Ballad of Robin Hood and the Pedlar” to charming slower pieces: “The pale moon rising”, and moving soprano trio “Be Strong”. The libretto goes from deadpan to hilarious: a brilliant duel-duet between Chapman and his wife entitled “The Pig Sty” (you’ll find out why) provokes ripples of laughter. But there’s wholesome folk wisdom too, and everywhere the unimposing warmth and calm honesty of rural life. The cast is uneven, the performance feels patchy here and there, and pace might be improved with a few judicious cuts, particularly of repeated choruses. But for charm, sincerity and real worth, The Pedlar of Swaffham is worth staying with until journey’s end.


Touring: 22 September at the Fisher Theatre, Bungay (01986 897 130) and 23 September at Convent School Theatre Swaffham ( – charity performance) 

Rating: Three (and a rural outing for the Musicals Mouse)3 Meece RatingMusicals Mouse width fixed

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FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE Marble Arch Theatre, W1


Sometimes the theatre can feel a little bit behind the times. The plots, the casts, the creatives and everything in between have yet to cease to amaze – but this is the age of Netflix, of ‘immersive cinema’, of a man selling a £1000 phone by telling us that ‘augmented reality’ is the most important thing to happen to anyone ever. Indeed, when contrasted with all of these innovations in entertainment, stuffing yourself into a heavily carpeted space, with limited legroom and maybe a plastic cup of wine, makes a trip to the theatre, no matter how stunning the show, suddenly feel awfully old fashioned in its formality.

Step forward Five Guys Named Moe at the purpose-built Marble Arch theatre. Here, the venue in itself is an experience, intended as a homage to a 1940s jazz bar. Pre-show, a live band plays above a busy cocktail bar, where sharply dressed staff shake up typical New Orleans classics, Hurricanes and Whiskey Sours aplenty. The show is performed in the round – our cast sing and dance and move around the audience from a spinning circular platform, with the luckiest of ticket holders sitting at cabaret-club style tables in the very centre of proceedings.

The story, written by Clarke Peters, who also directs, is a simple one: Nomax, a borderline alcoholic who is having relationships troubles, is alternately comforted and challenged by a medley of Moes emerging from his radio to sing him the toe-tapping works of Louis Jordan. It’s a fast-paced, funny and stylish cabaret performance from an impressively talented cast, all of whom are terrific, and  bringing a different style and flavour to a  lesser- known back catalogue than you might find at Motown the Musical. Particularly noteworthy is the six-piece band, who are often present on stage alongside the performers – walking basslines, rumbling drums, wailing brass – it’s euphoric and perfectly matches the soft jazz-club lighting and smokey ambience.

The emphasis here is on fun – the plot is incidental to the sheer brilliance and dynamism of the performances, which  help ease the audience into some truly special shared moments – this was quite possibly the first time that I have participated in a cast-led, audience-wide conga line to the bar for the interval.  Long may this concept continue.

Some traditionalists might take issue with the thought of touching a fellow theatre-goer’s shoulders, or, God forbid, running the risk of making direct eye contact – but ignore them. Five Guys Named Moe is an absolute blast. Go on a Saturday night, bring some friends, order a drink (or several); it’s the about the only trace of Old Fashioned you’ll find at this theatre.


Until 17th February

Box Office – 03333 444 167

Rating: Four 4 Meece Rating

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“There is no such thing as the imagination” says August Strindberg indignantly. “Things are real or they are not.”. Right now, holed up in a shabby hotel room in Paris in 1896 the exiled Swedish playwright is grappling with reality and illusion , his dignity gone, green-speckled feet poking from grimy long-johns beneath an alchemist’s leather apron. He converses angrily with a strange sharp insulting voice he himself utters – “my anti-me” which lives in the wall and is in league with unseen electrical forces trying to thwart his mission to find the Philosophers’ Stone and turn base metals into gold in the hotel bath. And now on top of these unseen forces, the poor man is being hounded by women.



First a pert and scornful maid (Laura Morgan, very sharp) invades the room, then one after another his two wives turn up, indignantly recounting, re-living and reanimating their turbulent past. Issues range from mere infidelities to crimes like his putting the first one – Siri – insultingly into a plays and a novel, and as his scientific mania grew, going round the park injecting the flowers with morphine to prove they have nervous systems. And sending his children recipes for levitation involving crushed ants and vinegar, which upset their stomachs. Ah yes, it was not only our millennium angst that spawned barmy New-Ageism: there was another one a century earlier.



This is a terrific coup for director Tom Littler’s debut as AD of the little Jermyn, now becoming a full producing-house. He commissioned this extraordinary 90-minuter from no less a writer than Howard Brenton, whose thoughtful but light-handed gift for historical reimagining goes back to The Romans In Britain, and more recently such hits as Anne Boleyn and Dr Scroggy’s War at the Globe, 55 Days and Ai Wei Wei at Hampstead. The preoccupation with Strindberg’s mysterious breakdown of Strindberg is well-researched but, as importantly, dazzlingly imagined. Against screens of iridescent fiery colour, real conversations with the women are abruptly blue-lit as interludes of delusion, their voices and tones changing accordingly; they rail and insult or seduce. Susannah Harker’s wonderful matronly, irritated Siri drips wifely scorn with lines like “Don’t let this slide into your suicide thingy!” and he rails right back, accusing her of a lesbian affair with a woman he detests – “that freethinking horror!” . When Gala Gordon as the slinkier Frida (for whom he left Siri) appears in turn, he is most furious that she slept with Frank Wedekind, though she protests that the fling was merely a quick beer compared to the champagne of Strindberg. Indeed neatly in passing Brenton evokes that rich troubled period: Freud and Munch and l Ibsen, Swedenborg and Schopenhauer, and the couples’ time in louche Berlin and Paris, respectable Stockholm and dreary Gravesend. (Yep, he went there with Frida in 1893, I looked it up – 12 Pelham Road, Frida was seasick and he hated the double bed).




It is altogether a great treat. And Jasper Britton as the crumbling colossus, the psychotic Samson at its heart, is perfect. There is real pain and buoyant playfulness, and beneath the maddest moments a sense of a poet and thinker so avid for change and experiment that on hitting a creative and personal wall, he had to reinvent himself through this crazy psychosis in order to emerge and make something fresh..


And there’s a grandeur, beyond the vigour and earthiness and jokes and shocks of this tumbling ninety-minute journey through madness. Brenton’s Strindberg expresses what all artists seek: “The transformation of what was base and dull and compromised, ambiguous, into incorruptible gold”. Fabulous. Gold or not, this one will last.


Box office 0207 287 2875
rating five  5 Meece Rating

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THE KNOWLEDGE Charing Cross theatre SW1



It couldn’t be better placed, here in the arches below Charing Cross station. Under the venerable rules of London licensed cabs – dating back to the 1843 Act – “The Knowledge” that cabbies must have is centred right here. Fifteen thousand streets, within a six-mile radius of this very spot, must be memorized, along with hotels, public buildings and amenities thereon. Then on it goes to the suburbs. Only three in ten succeed in winning their badge; some take years, riding mopeds on the 468 prescribed runs (often at night or in the bleak dawn, around a day job). It is unique in the world.



So here at its centre, and in a year when the cheapskate, exploitative dark empire of Uber is fast eroding it, this is the place for a double act of commemoration. Jack Rosenthal’s well-loved film, set in 1979, has been adapted by Simon Black into theatrical shape and retains all the dry gentle wit, empathy and humane sweetness of the man. His widow, Maureen Lipman, directs it. So that’s one commemoration; the other is of the cabbies themselves. Who are still with us, surviving the age of vampiric digital minicabs and the customer parsimony which insouciantly drives costs and lesser incomes down. . It isn’t a storming, life-changing play, but it is an honest slice of life and in the second hour, surprisingly satisfying.




Nicolai Hart-Hansen’s nicely conceived set has traffic-lights, street signs, and three sparse domestic interiors below the high terrifying platform of the examiner Mr Burgess’ office, complete with the legendary toy parrot and bonsai tree. Up there Steven Pacey presides as an infuriating, whimsically bullying, ferretily- schoolmasterly figure (no surprise that the interval music includes PInk Floysd The Wall , with its “dark sarcasms”) .At the end of Act 1 Lipman gives us a nice coup de theatre as the cast’s voices become an echoing cacophony of streets, squares, turnings, fire stations , tunnels and warnings while the third candidate panics on the stairs. The evocation of mental stress jars your very teeth.




We are following the candidates, each with their domestic setting, some more finely drawn than others but all given typical Rosenthal sympathy. There’s James Alexandrou’s swaggering Gordon with his fed-up wife, Ben Caplan’s Ted, from a dynasty of Jewish cabbies, Louise Callagnan as a pioneering , tough-edged young woman candidate (this is 1979, remember) . Above all there’s young Fabian Frankel, fresh out of Lamda, as the feckless, jobless, unconfident Chris whose girlfriend (Alice Felgate) buys him a moped and nags him to do The Knowledge and make something of himself.



Their trajectory is the most interesting, as Chris, at first despairing of himself, gradually finds steely resolve until his girl, dismayed, realizes that as her role vanishes their relationship no longer works. Frankel does this butterfly emergence very well indeed, moving from petulance to resolve and finally to a warm self-amazement which turns your heart over. Ben Caplan and Jenna Augen as the Jewish pair carry their trajectory particularly well too.



And even Burgess – after enraging us and the candidates equally with his distraction techniques and evocation of awful punters during the bruising examinations – has a moment of sweet humanity. He was a cabbie too, and knows the horror of ”people..they mumble, can’t hear you, don’t know where they’re going..” But as Callagnan’s Miss Staveley says, struggling with her rage at Burgess’ demonstration of the sexual baiting she will get, “I always have to be the better man, Sir”. That, and young Frankel,  and long gratitude to our unique cabbies, won the fourth mouse.

I was going to take the Tube afterwards, but took a cab instead. In tribute.



box office 020 7930 5868 to 11 Nov
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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DOUBT – A PARABLE Southwark Playhouse, SE1




The feminist “Bechdel Test” for fiction says that there must be conversations between two women which are not about men. John Patrick Shanley’s tight Pulitzer winner (2005) passes spectacularly, being set in a small convent school in the Bronx in 1964. An innocent hopeful young Sister James faces up stern Sister Aloysius : a principal so fiercely doctrinal that she thinks Frosty the Snowman is heretical paganism. But once updates about Class 8 are done with, they actually are discussing a man, though not romantically. This is the priest, dashing young Father Flynn who plays basketball with the kids and delivers daring sermons about the need for doubt in faith.



Sister Aloysius doesn’t like him: when the young teacher confides that he has befriended a vulnerable 12 year old, the only black child in the school and seen him alone, she suspects what, with real-life retrospection, we all do. In a tight 90 minutes, on an elegantly simple stained-glass floor with us ranged around as if at a boxing-match, doubt and suspicion play out in a duel between the sour, savvy old nun and the priest. Who may or may not be guilty – Shanley wants us not to know. Certainly his cuddlier, informal, post-Vatican-2 approach makes him appeal strongly to the younger nun, warning “There are people who will go after your humanity, kill kindness in the name of virtue”.




With a very sharp Stella Gonet as the merciless, but personally tormented principal, Che Walker’s production is often breath-holdingly tense, more indeed than the film with Meryl Streep was. The first spontaneous exit-round of applause was for Jo Martin as the black boy’s mother, a bulwark of dignity just glad to have him “safe” in a decent school with prospects and flatly refusing to help rock the boat . The authentic voice of 1960’s minority pragmatism speaks in her shocking words “You accept what you gotta accept and you work with it…maybe my son IS that way..Let him have him then. It’s just till June”.




That plays ironically against Sr.Aloysius’ refusal to accept the limitations of her own status, all too familiar to us 1960s convent girls who well remember how in rigid Catholic authority the callowest young priest held patriarchal authority over even the wisest veteran Mother Superior. “There are parameters” says the principal bitterly “which protect him and hinder me”. After the real abuses uncovered in Boston, Ireland and elsewhere over past decades, many a Catholic nun who didn’t blow the whistle will wince at that. Yet in Gonet’s uncompromising performance the curmudgeonly, bitter Sister Aloysius is no saint herself.



So is he guilty? It is by disingenuous manoeuvre that the nun finds victory, and we are not permitted to know. But Jonathan Chambers as the priest offers enough clues to make us uneasy. It is not just in choleric outbursts and Shanley’s lines (who, in full innocence, answers a straight accusatory question with “Did YOU never do anything wrong?”) but also in a certain flirtatiousness in his basketball training scene. But maybe he is just suffering from the now endemic suspicion caused by real priestly abusers. It feels timely, uncomfortable, and riveting: a worthy revival. So much sanctimony has veiled horrible crimes that for all our distaste we’re right alongside  Gonet when he pleads “Where is your compassion?” and she snaps, a heroic harridan “Nowhere YOU can get at it!”.




box office 020 7407 0234 to 30 Sept
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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FOLLIES Olivier, SE1



Last time the Olivier stage was this populous was for AMADEUS, with the entire Southbank Sinfonia clambering, flowing and sliding around the stage, shaping and re-forming to play celestial Mozart harmonies on the move. This time it is full of feathers and fans, satin and sequins and spectacular hoofing (choreography by Bill Deamer, brilliant both in precision and character moments – Tracie Bennett, take a faux-hobbling bow. . The music is stunningly directed by Nigel Lilley, and a highly decorative ensemble surrounds four principals and standout cameos. It’s a showbiz dream and nightmare performed, under Dominic Cooke’s bold direction, without an interval in two hours 15 minutes flat.




Not a harsh word can be uttered about any of the big Sondheim numbers, or against the stellar cast – especially the women. Imelda Staunton, Janie Dee, Tracie Bennett , Josephine Barstow – be still my beating heart! Nor can you not fall heavily for Di Botcher doing Broadway Baby in an Angela Merkel pant-suit, or fail to nod approval at the inclulsion of a high-kicking Strallen (Zizi this time, gotta have one at least: and her reaction acting as a younger Phyllis is outstanding). And never regret seeing Peter Forbes as the maritally disappointed Buddy, acing both his numbers: a heartbreaking The Right Girl and a final hypervaudeville patter-pastiche complete with a BennyHill chase.




Yet it’s a curious beast, this show. To this devoted Sondheimista who had never seen it perfomed but wept at the attrition of lives in Merrily We Roll Along, gasped at Assassins and Sweeney Todd and thrice worshipped Gypsy with Imelda Staunton, it struck a curiously chill, almost bland note. Which is not the fault of the conception – an artful game of duality between past and present, naturalism and pastiche- nor of the production, because any chance of real transmission of feeling is taken seriously: notably by an endearing Staunton and a waspish Dee. Maybe it just feels chilly because that is its theme: the ruins and regrets of mid-life, the attrition of age, the way that feather-helmeted showbiz glamour fades to middle age, a metaphor for the universal loss of youth’s sheen and ambition. And there are nice swipes of disgust at the roles life throws at women getting older: “You’re a wide-eyed vamp, then someone’s mother, then you’re camp..” sings the ineffably funny Tracie Bennett as Carlotta, briefly stealing the show with “I’m still here”.




It’s not a complicated idea. Under a nicely half-demolished, backstage-cluttered set of the Weinstock Follies (“Celebrating the American Girl”) a final reunion of the old “girls” sees a meeting of two old flatmates: Staunton’s effervescent awkward Sally and Dee’s cool, queenly Phyllis. Their respective husbands, successful Ben (Philip Quast, terrific) and salesman Buddy have come reluctantly. They know it’ll be trouble, and it is, as the foursome’s middle-aged interactions interlace with their young selves, wandering through memory, dancing the old dance of emotional entanglement which saw Sally and Ben marrying the wrong ones. Mature dishonesties and delusions melt as the evening gets drunker (a bold and wise stroke from Cooke to run it without an interval: we’re at that party). It culminates in a spectacular eightsome-riot melting into four great “Loveland”  set-pieces,  mocking vaudeville parodies of real and tearing emotions.


It is all done brilliantly, as well as it could be, and yet does not quite move the heart. Even – no, especially – in the redemptive moments at the end. So a grand entertaining evening, and some of the showiest showbiz in town. But the eyes stay dry.


box office box office 020 7452 3333 to 3 Jan

On screens nationwide 16 nov
rating four  4 Meece Rating


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