Monthly Archives: October 2017

THE SLAVES OF SOLITUDE Hampstead Theatre, NW3

THE LONELY HEARTS OF WARTIME

 

If you need relief from the current outbreak of extreme social primness about male behaviour, you’re going to love the bit with Clive Francis , as the elderly Mr Thwaites, going batshit-bonkers on pickled walnut Martinis when tempted by the generous Teutonic cleavage of Lucy Cohu’s MIss Kugelmann. The first act of this deceptively entertaining play certainly ends with a bang.

 

 

I say deceptively, because although there is some wonderful sly comedy from the start, its strength is in a humane, rueful, oddly hopeful understanding of loneliness and of the way we try to make real connections through what one of them calls the “glass wall” of our separateness and suspicion. Tim Hatley’s design elegantly underlines this theme, its elegant sliding changes offering momentary chiaroscuro glimpses of aloneness. No character is all bad, nor all good; even the most minor of them, in fleetingly sketched moments, reveal both their handicap and their hope. It’s lovely.

 

 

 

This was a novel by Patrick Hamilton, whose famous play GASLIGHT was an enjoyable cod-Victorian melodrama. His novels, though, are different: moodier, their important events internal; and they are set in the world he knew: seedy 1930’s and 40’s:London, bedsits and boarding-houses, scruffy pubs and parties. This late one, with more comic vision and a bit more hope, is now brilliantly transformed for the stage by Nicholas Wright.

 

 

In a boarding-house in Henley we find our heroine Miss Roach (Fenella Woolgar, perfect in every thwarted, eager, scrupulous move and expression). A former teacher who “couldn’t control the boys”, she saw her flat blown open in the Blitz and fled to this sanctuary, reading manuscripts for a publisher , regretting an affair with her married boss, barely tolerating the elderly company. Miss Barratt and Miss Steele are amiable enough (this play is full of glorious moments for maturer actors playing long-formed characters) but from his separate table, over the spam fritters, Clive Francis’ Mr Thwaites is gloriously nightmarish. He’s xenophobic, mocks Roach’s socialist principles, and rarely deviates from coy, codgerish Wallace-Arnold archaisms (“Dost thou foregather in the Rising Sun” etc). He is far from welcoming her new friend, the dangerously charming American Lt Pike (Daon Broni). Artfully, Wright has made the Yank a black GI, thus enabling sarky Thwaites remarks about our “dusky combatant from distant shores” . Perfect.

 

 

On the other hand, despite his hatred of Germans, the old man is very much taken with Miss Kugelmann, a German emigrée. Cohu wickedly gives it her hipswivelling all as a rapidly maturing but determined party-girl with whom the prim Roach has unwisely made friends out of kindness, and introduced in to the boarding-house. The sometimes beautiful delicacy of Miss Roach’s romance with the American is rudely shattered by what Thwaites might call the frolicsome Fraulein, and things escalate disastrously. Indeed Kent has given us a sly flash-forward at the start, which makes us expect something even worse than what happens.

 

 

But the joy of it is that not only their denouement but everyone else’s isolation and cures are evident. All the cast catch the Hamilton , period, mood perfectly, not least Richard Tate as the elusive Mr Prest, deemed a mere drunk by the old ladies, but who wisely stays sane by nipping up to the Leicester Square pubs to meet his old showbiz friends. Or there’s a seventeen-year-old soldier (Tom Milligan) who remembers Miss Roach as his old teacher (an extraordinarily moving, transformative moment between them is again delicate , fleeting).

 

 

There is a sense of each character’s past, and potential redemption: there’s Miss Steele the Oxford classicist, unwillingly retired after a 35 year career in archaeology, cheerful Mrs Barrett . And the latter’s sister (Gwen Taylor plays both, in a cheeky twin-sister-twinning) becomes a dea ex machina, a GP more than pleased to be back in harness for wartime. She delivers, indeed , the briskly important line “If one is lonely at a time like this, one deserves to be”. Ah yes. It is as if Hamilton’s moody 1930’s fictions (like Hangover Square) grew in the rough soil of wartime into something more purposeful. Maybe much of Britain did. After a fragmenting Christmas chaos in several lives, Miss Roach’s final vision is that life trudges on: “There will be more love, more hate, more goodbyes, more sudden deaths… God help us every one” .

The dry echo of Dickens’ Tiny Tim is no accident.

 

 

Box office 020 7722 9301  www.hampsteadtheatre.com to 25 Nov
rating five. Because I can’t resist it.

5 Meece Rating

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OF KITH AND KIN Bush Theatre W12

WHOSE BABY? 

 

It is a brave theme that Chris Thompson – a former social worker – has chosen. It is also a darkly, and accidentally, topical one since a court case is still running in  which the younger of two gay male partners is accused of violence towards their baby.  Parenthood and its stresses are perennial themes, but as the idea of family changes, it is only fair to imagine and depict ways in which the new structures – so full of optimism and liberal approval – can implode . As  easily as he old heterosexual model. Sometimes perhaps more so if – as transpires  here – there are generational gulfs and unresolved resentments in an age of fast change.

 

 

We  meet 46 year old solicitor Daniel (a saturnine, powerful James Lance) with his partner Ollie (Joshua Silver) who is fourteen years younger and a party-planner. They are having a larky baby-shower with Priya (Chetna Pandya) their heavily pregnant surrogate. They vogue their camp wedding dance, snog,  giggle that “Daddy” has had a sexual overtone for them, nudge nudge, so they’d better stick to “Dad” for the baby.  So far, so modern, so cosy, . Priya has a 15 year old son who the boys see a lot and mentor, and once bore a surrogate baby for her sister. All is set fair.
But the second scene (after an elegantly staged suggestion of birth, director Robert Hastie keeps things neat and fast here) is a furious courtroom battle. Priya has reneged and kept the baby and Daniel in particular is eloquently distraught.

 

 

I notice that two (male) reviewers complain that we aren’t told what her motivation is to do this harsh thing: but hang on – speaking as a female, I have no such problem. Go back to that opening scene and the point when the consensual cosiness collapses.  Daniel’s mother (“on a freedom pass from Woolwich”) arrives,  not homophobic exactly but feeling they’ll need more help than they admit. Ollie resents here commonness, insults her repeatedly for everything including buying a Christmas turkey at Iceland, and blames her for every hangup that Daniel has, because she was in an abusive relationship and his father threw him out at fifteen. Daniel, defending her against this onslaught, becomes physically violent in no time, and the whole thing becomes so ugly, so revelatory, so testosterone-charged and immature and dangerous, that no sane woman would let the chaps mind a hamster. Let alone a newborn, however donor-egged. Pandya draws the pregnant Priya assuredly and vividly, both here and in the final scene. In court she says nothing, while Joanna Bacon changes role to be a rather man-hating barrister taunting Daniel to more outbreaks of rage and Donna Berlin as a dryly funny family court judge slaps them both down.

 

 
There are lots of arguments winding through the play: not least Daniel’s fury that any “Peggy sue from Woolwich” can get pregnant and have full rights over her baby, yet a man must be humiliatingly questioned just to get his son..”. And in the final at, after Daniel has rather chillingly furiously wrecked the planned nursery, we veer off into the problem between the men, which is about generational change, and Ollie being all “entitled” because he never went through the days of stigma and deprivation before gay marriage.   His resentment at not having a beautiful “proposal story” from the tougher, older Daniel – who popped the question under duress, in Nandos – is both funny and telling.

 

 
The battle concludes, not entirely credibly. But what sticks in the mind is the abrupt, unrestrained tendency to male violence in Daniel. There’s a briefly sinister moment when Lance walks quietly into the immaculate nursery (we don’t know what happened in court, and who won) and plunges into the cot in rage, to hurl its contents around.
OK, there is no baby there. But if I was Priya, I’d have thought again.

 

box office 020 8743 5050 to 31 Nov
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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RODELINDA Coliseum, WC2

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI LOSES HER HEART TO HOODLUMS

Even ruthless, psychotic gangsters have to fall in love sometimes. And Rodelinda is all about what happens when the people at the top of the cruel power pyramid have got their minds on… other things, like other people’s faithful wives, as well as their crime kingdoms. Director Richard Jones translates Rodelinda’s setting (originally 7th century Lombardy) to gangster warfare in 1950s Milan: a brilliant decision which at once rehabilitates the casual violence and thrilling power games of this constantly developing story, not to mention its dangerously volatile characters, each one plotting and sub-plotting away fervidly, both for and against Fate. Jeremy Herbert’s set design takes us from dilapidated rooms, paired and later stacked on stage to provide us with plenty of simultaneous action, to brutally plain outdoor street scenes, where three treadmills allow characters to chase after each other fruitlessly, and glorious wedding-cake Italian death monuments of statuesque ghastliness. As the evening unfolds, the treadmills can start to feel a little over-used, but just wait till you see the hapless Unulfo’s toe-twinkling dance routine (a fabulously vivid, heartbreakingly loyal Christopher Lowrey). In another stunning scene, exiled kingpin Bertarido drowns his (mistaken) sorrows in an empty neon bar which screams loneliness and despair, a lurid update of Hopper’s Nighthawks. Characters demonstrate love and loyalty by tattooing names on their bodies, which means the faithless traitor Grimoaldo hilariously stacks up rather more names on his skin than he eventually needs: quite something to explain in the shower.

Richard Jones’ production thrums with vigour, his characteristically taut balance of marked formalism with naturalistic acting delivering tension, suspense and above all emotional legitimacy to each twist of the plot, which speaks with faultless clarity. Best of all, Jones opens this opera’s humour vein again and again, comedy hovering dangerously over the dark side of mafia life as hoodlums have fun deciding which murder weapon to use, or threaten gruesome deaths by acted gesture. The best of these come from Flavio, definitely Mummy’s little psychopath, silently acted with unnerving poise by Matt Casey, but a talent for physical comedy runs throughout this fine cast, not least from Neal Davies’ ruggedly coarse murderer-for-life Garibaldo.

Tim Mead’s astonishingly beautiful, poignantly strong-man-down Bertarido has us utterly in thrall from his first note to last, Handel’s plangent arias sounding spellbinding in his haunting countertenor. Rebecca Evans reprises her superb Rodelinda to gorgeous effect, an intoxicating combination of Evans’ cool, creamy, unhesitatingly clear soprano and fabulous acting, an Italian warrior princess in haute couture and heels. Juan Sancho steadily finds his way with Grimoaldo, the creepy usurper who becomes more and more appealing as his hopeless desire for Rodelinda drives him virtually mad. Susan Bickley’s Eduige veers between a force to be reckoned with, and a querulous, ageing spinster on uncertain ground, which brings interesting depth to this smaller role, although sometimes Eduige just lacks presence.

Christian Curnyn conducts the ENO Orchestra with a sense of pliant bounce and energy, listening sensitively to his singers, who repay him in spades. It’s a night of jaw-dropping musicality and intense drama: not to be missed.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

At the London Coliseum until 15 November. Box office: 020 7845 9300

Co-production: English National Opera with the Bolshoi Theatre of Russia

Rating: Five 5 Meece Rating

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YOUNG MARX The Bridge, SE1

ROISTERING AND REVOLUTION

 

There is a nice contrarian quality about Nicholas Hytner’s choice for his first production, in the dramatically beautiful new theatre he founded with Nick Starr. Outside is the new Ivy, a river view of the Tower and its bridge and grand modern signage. Inside a chic wide foyer, noble staircase, elegant balconies, leather-trimmed seats… and on this first night, frankly, anyone who is anyone in the social, high-financial and above all theatrical worlds. Dazzling.

 

 

Yet on the stage it is another London, Soho 1850: with Europe in restless disarray the young Karl Marx and  a half-starved rabble of emigré intellectuals huddle in filthy rooms, plotting the downfall of the capitalist society and avoiding the newly invented police. Marx has an  aristocratic Prussian wife at the end of her tether:  Jenny von Westphalen is, he explains airily “ is not adapted well to abject poverty”. She frets over her sick child and the bailiffs hammer on the door and remove all the furniture.  Which she could have redeemed, had the boozy wastrel  Marx not taken her last family heirloom to a pawnshop, been chased as a thief, shinned up a wall onto a lofty rotating London roofscape , run back home and dived up the chimney . Rory Kinnear’s Marx,  unrecognizably hirsute, does more physical stuff than you might expect of a towering economic  philosopher – diving into windows, chimneys, a cupboard, a chaotic duel and several low brawls , including a stonking one in the British Museum Reading Room which almost distracts poor Mr Darwin from his new mollusc.

 

 
As with Ianucci’s new film The Death of Stalin – set a communist century later –  Richard Bean and Clive Coleman in fact have not needed to embroider much. Marx and his mates did find shelter here, and he did carouse and neglect his family’s welfare while he was blocked or unwilling to get on with some work on Das Kapital.  His friend Engels (played by Oliver Chris with an exasperated decency that makes a good foil) did at least meet and record the really downtrodden industrial proletariat of Manchester: he has a fine speech about them which at one stage cuts hard across the rumbustious selfishness of Marx.

 

 
It is as much a personal as a political-historical story: Marx’s heroic wife (a strong, gentle portrayal by Nancy Carroll)  and his equally heroic housekeeper Nym struggle to keep both the family and the flame of revolution alive, hoping that the English poor will understand it and rise. Others in the ramshackle cell, like the menacingly absurd Frenchman Bathelemy -(Milton Yerolemou) want to do it faster, through terrorism and assassinations.  Which feels eerily topical.

 

 

Threaded  through the comedy (sometimes sitcom-broad, often bawdy, shading to darkness later)   Marx spouts shreds of social theory, whether to a whelk-girl or while unaccountably stealing a gate.  Kinnear gives him flesh whenever he can, for all the bawdy: he knows that “I have killed our marriage” and that the Manifesto, written a few years earlier with Engels, had already cost lives across Europe with the “virus of hope”. And there was a nice murmur from the stalls at “there will come a day when the markets have crashed. Money has eaten itself”. But it is family sadness which gets him working again in the final quiet lamplight (Engels obviously paid for the lamps. And paper. Genius demands such service).

 

 

The play sometimes felt a bit disconnected, between historic politics and the broad larking. But its revolutionary paupers got their applause from the not-at-all broke first night crowd. And I have a hunch that it will find its feet better , the laughs sharper, with a younger, wider audience. The rudery, the angry clever poverty and laddish mateship of the tale may strike its surest notes  with the new theatre’s promised15 and 25 quid seats. All the sightlines, after all, are excellent, so the balconies are just fine. And Hytner and Bean know a thing or two about audiences for unlikely comedies after One Man Two Guvnors.  I sense a Cunning Plan. The launch was grand, but it’ll be the run that proves it.

 

box office 0843 208 1846 http://www.bridgetheatre.co.uk to 31 Dec
The play will be broadcast live on NT Live to 700 cinemas on 7 Dec
rating four  4 Meece Rating

 

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ANYTHING THAT FLIES Jermyn St, SW1

SHADOWS OF WAR AND LOSS

 

Not a good week for AA Milne. That “Goodbye Christopher Robin” film about his WW1 trauma comes out – then Philip Pullman sounds off scornfully about how he despises the coziness of the books – now old Otto in Judith Burnley’s play starts inveighing against the “sentimental, sanctimonious, false” stories. It’s an Eeyore chorus.

 

 

But help is at hand, as the cantankerous Jewish survivor’s German carer Lotte stands up for Pooh and Tigger, because when she was five in 1939, a sprig of the old (antifascist) nobility,  her English nanny read them to her. She liked how different it was, since with Poohsticks you can cheer for the understick. “In Germany children were indoctrinated to believe that to be German was superior. You had to win. In England they hung over that bridge and watched the natural forces, wind, water, shape, size and above all luck determine which stick won…sometimes you wanted the big one to win, sometimes the smaller”.
 

 

The play is a two-hander, set in a pleasant Belsize Park flat in 1991 just as the Wall has come down. , Clive Merrison is angry Otto, hating old age. He has made a good industrial career in England though his deepest love is his music. Lotte , who escaped East Germany when her family estate was cut by the border, has been living in Israel with her beloved Yakov (“the first Jew I eve met socially”) and in widowhood was hired by Otto’s Israeli daughter to be his carer, against his will.  And to make him sign he papers for the property reparations Germany was still making to Jews whose property was seized.

 

 
They both have scars of war. His are deep and obvious – Buchenwald , and a final traumatic reveal about his little sister’s horrid death. Here are subtler, both personal about her father’s execution, and more generally in her great cry of “There isn’t a monopoly on suffering. What did I lose? Everything. Lands, heritage, money. But most of all I lost the sense of what it was to be a German, a real civilized traditional German with real and honourable and lasting German values”. It is a fair point, rarely made.

 

 

Not that she breaks out often in emotion. Lotte is played with beautiful , intensely felt restraint and gentleness by Issy van Randwyck: beneath her necessary matronly fussing there are layers of sadness, expressed in stillness, half-smiles, and benign attention to the difficult, sometimes disinhibited old man. It is worth seeing for that performance alone; though Merrison is as good as ever, he has been handed an awkward task. The writing is sometimes clunky (there are near the start two unconscionably long and clumsy one-sided phone calls to negotiate, neither of them wholly necessary). Sometimes it is just psychologically odd: once, the fourth wall comes down for a soliloquy about sexual desire, and the most wrenching bit of his wartime backstory – which explains the title –  is unaccountably told not to Lotte but to us, with a strength of delivery which is a bit confusing since he is by then near his end.

 

 

 

There is also a continuity problem, in that we know he was interned as an enemy alien in 1939 and never saw his family again, yet somehow he has vivid knowledge of their final night, later. Maybe I missed a line, but it is not the sort of thing one should – at such a point and on such a theme – be worrying about. Making you do it is a structural flaw.

 

Indeed often I had a  restless sense that there is a seriously good play trying to be born here and almost making it, and I hope another version will rise.   But von Randwyck’s performance, and the theme, were satisfying. The Jermyn , intimate and intense, has always been a good place for reigniting  history.
 

 

Box office 0207 287 2875 http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk
rating three   3 Meece Rating

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THE DREAM FACTORY Touring

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS HALF-TERM HEAVEN AT NORWICH PUPPET THEATRE

“Have you ever wondered where dreams come from? Or how they get into your head?” A thought-provoking debut production from House of Stray Cats, The Dream Factory takes us on an intriguing creative journey into the sometimes dark, sometimes brilliant world of dreams from the point of view of Sophie, a young girl who has suddenly lost her ability to dream. Picking up on the sensitive, courageous spirit of recent works for children like Inside Out, The Dream Factory eventually finds Sophie a new way to dream happily again, but, like life, this is isn’t a straightforward journey. Sophie has plenty of adventures along the way, some dreams that go wrong, and even a nightmare, all animated by beautiful puppets who swoop, swirl and swim before us, sometimes floating right up into the audience to interact with delighted children.

Sophie herself is a puppet, and we have a cast of three fully integrated actor-puppeteers who also appear as characters in the action in their own right, while also voicing the puppets we meet: Katriona Brown, Nicole Black and prime mover Maia Kirkman-Richards, who has also written and produced the show, as well as designing and creating the wider cast of puppets. A vividly evocative soundscape by Paul Mosley illustrates each change in mood as the story unfolds with a flowing combination of synths, piano, strings and other electronic samples, bolstered here and there with percussive ‘found sounds’ (like crunching glass) to give texture. We get plenty of good songs – setting Kirkman-Richards’ naively poignant lyrics to simple, clear melodies ideal for children – though the rest of the piece relies mainly on physical theatre and puppetry, largely ‘voiced’ with inarticulate gasps, cries or sighs, rather than any extended wordy narrative. This comparative wordlessness, outside the songs, allows the production to engage even the youngest children, while its elegant dreamscapes appeal visually to young and old. A simple set of white wooden furniture (designed by Maia Kirkman-Richards and Peter Morton) begins as Sophie’s bedroom, but wardrobe, bed and dressing table soon evolve dynamically into mountains, waves and the Dream Factory itself: like a dream, the action constantly develops, and often in unexpected or unspecified directions. Our own imaginations, happily, get to fill in the tantalising gaps.

Although Inside Out and Up were groundbreaking in their unflinching psychological detail after the shiny Disney universe which had held sway over children’s entertainment for so long, emotional seriousness has always been the backbone of any good children’s story, all the way back to the dark, disturbing tales of the Brothers Grimm. The Dream Factory deals with profound themes of grief, loss and fear in a constructive, original spirit which does not seek to minimise or ignore pain, but rather to acknowledge it, accept it and watch life move beyond it into something not necessarily better, but different and more bearable. It’s an enchanting, enlightening and ultimately comforting watch.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

[Reviewed at Norwich Puppet Theatre on 23 October 2017]

Touring across the UK until 14 November: details and tickets here Touring Mouse wide

Rating: Four 4 Meece Rating

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INSIGNIFICANCE Arcola, E8

THE SCIENTIST AND THE SEX SYMBOL, IN A PARANOID WORLD

 

 

The uneasy 1950s: Albert Einstein is exiled in America and called to appear before the unAmerican Activities committee for the “are you or have you ever been..?” question. But he has barely got rid of Senator McCarthy before he gets a surprise visit from a restless, intellectually ambitious Marilyn Monroe who wants to talk Relativity. And whose furious husband Joe Di Maggio will shortly hammer on the door to confront her.  Terry Johnson’s 1982 imagining, rooted in history, scientific thought and profound human need, still sparks brightly.

 

 

Because any good play explodes  into fresh topicalities. This imagined night in 1954 has been a 1985 film and a few revivals (notably one set intimately in an actual hotel room). But here and now, in the almost equally intimate Arcola atmosphere, it radiates current themes.  The age of nuclear dread is back, after all, and Einstein’s regret about what his discoveries led to, sharp at the  play’s end, is for us too. America is again producing rightist thugs with a morbid dread of the unAmerican world; only instead of McCarthyist accusations today we have fake news. And – God help us – the poisonous topic of celebrity and exploited , dishonourde female beauty could hardly be more bang-on.

 

 

David Mercatali’s production is beautifully acted by all four of the – teasingly unnamed  – protagonists.  Simon Rouse as The Professor has a deceptively vague but suddenly sharp, always kindly sweetness: Alice Bailey Johnson’s breathy Monroe develops convincingly – dropping the famous littlegirl tones – into the restive thwarted intelligence Johnson imagines. Her expatiation  on the mysteries of relativity with balloons, toy trains , Mickey Mouse ears and hand-torches is entrancing, her final distress dark and wrenching.  Tom Mannion is a a superbly crass Senator Mc Carthy  (“the whole damn war [WW2] was a Soviet plot”). Oliver Hembrough as Joe di Maggio hardly stops chewing and popping his Hubbla Bubbla gum, even when threatening the other men or expressing husbandly outrage (“never put a woman on a pedestal, it makes it easy for her to kick your teeth down your throat”. He keeps the gum going , whether wooing his wife, entering into a bizarre philosophical debate on subjective reality with the Senator, or enumerating how many bubblegum card collections he figured in over his glory decades on the baseball field. Einstein can only compete by citing his appearance in the Great Scientific Discoveries series.
 

For all the comedy, they each fill the parts with humanity, moving the atmosphere away from mere Stoppardian clevertalk (though I do love the Schrodinger’s cat joke). The sparring wit is never far from a kind of sweetness and sadness . Especially from the Professor – “”I want to finish my work and slip off the edge of this dreary painful plant as Columbus sadly never did..”. But it is also there in  Joe Di Maggio ‘s hurt cry to his damaged, tricky wife – “how can a man make love to a wound?”. That turns sympathy on a sixpence: he is no longer just an ape in a suit.
By the way the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, lately adopted to ginger-up into that baggy Simon Stephens romcom, is here a deft grace note at the end : it reflects Monroe’s victimhood as an object of fame, since  “the fact of observing something changes it ”. Not, in her case, for the better.

 

 

020 7503 1646 to 18 nov
rating fourn4 Meece Rating

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