Monthly Archives: September 2017

THE BLINDING LIGHT Jermyn St Theatre SW1

A PSYCHOTIC SAMSON AND HIS WOMEN

 

“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 http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk
rating five  5 Meece Rating

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THE KNOWLEDGE Charing Cross theatre SW1

THE CABMAN’S PROGRESS

 

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

HARRIDAN OR HEROINE..?

 

 

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 southwarkplayhouse.co.uk to 30 Sept
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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FOLLIES Olivier, SE1

BROADWAY BABIES IN A BITTER LOVELAND

 

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 http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk to 3 Jan

On screens nationwide 16 nov http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk
rating four  4 Meece Rating

 

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