Monthly Archives: November 2017

A CHRISTMAS CAROL Old Vic SE1

DICKENS UNCHAINED

 

 

Good to see the Old Vic auditorium in the round again (a Spacey innovation). Though this time, there’s a long transverse thrust stage enabling Marley’s ghost to drag a spectacular 40ft or so of chains and strongboxes behind him, and to be dragged out backwards by it. The book is adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus and designed by Rob Howell with many a dangling, swooping lantern, invisible door and pop-up strongbox, It is therefore tempting to start with the grand finish: to refer to Matilda and Harry Potter and the like, and reveal staging-finale matters aerial, textile, meteorological, zipwire and sprout-related.

 

 

But no spoilers. Take the kids to see, mark, draw in its sternly humane morality and wait for the big gasps till the end. Take it as straightish Dickens with artful Thorne adaptations, whose marvellously heartfelt Christmas quality would delight the author of 1843. It begins and ends with the cast playing the silvery simplicity of handbells, and all through it in a mood-setting score by Christopher NIghtingale, there are laced familiar carols. They fit: “In the Bleak Midwinter” can be, after all, eerie for a midnight haunting. And thundering words like “Hail, redemption’s happy dawn!” could hardly be more apt for old Scrooge’s final relieved awakening. And if you are a miserly old bastard being harassed by carol-singers approaching up the long stage, what tune could be more approriately infuriating than “God rest ye merry, gentlemen”?

 

 

 

Scrooge is a dishevelled Rhys Ifans, an actor who can produce mad-eyed mania but keeps it under control in a fine and often movingly anguished process through his ghostly torments, until the great relief unleashes crazed capering. Thorne’s adaptation is clever enough to add surprise and even suspense to the well-worn tale: cunningly, it begins with choral narration by the black-cloaked cast intoning from “Marley was dead”, and sometimes reverts to the letter of the text both in narration and dialogue. But there are differences, surprises; the ghosts are not spectacular but motherly, pram-pushing: there is more emphasis on the harsh father and sad boyhood, without excuses (“These are the bricks you are made from…we are all made. But we make, too”). Fezziwig becomes an undertaker; Scrooge’s lost sister a ghost, his early lover a figure who, in Thorne’s unusually long coda, is modern enough to need a face-to-face reckoning forty years later. There are moments which without losing the cloaked, top-hatted, handbell mood of the piece , seem directed harder at our TV-news generation than at Dickens’ contemporaries. When the ghost shows him Tiny Tim’s likely end Scrooge cries “a dying child – is it wrong not to want to see that?”. Good question.

 

So it is DIckensian and modern, clever and heartfelt, gripping and touching and tuneable and serious and sometimes funny (Ifans is indeed let off the chain for a while in the end, and Marley gets a moment. In restless late November, it began Christmas as it should be.

 

box office 0844 871 7628 to 20 Jan
Principal partner: Royal Bank of Canada
rating five   5 Meece Rating

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THE SECRET THEATRE Wanamaker, SE1

RUFF WORK: AN ELIZABETHAN MORALITY FOR TODAY

 

 

This is a devilish cunning ploy from Anders Lustgarten – an impassioned critic of state and social policies, sometimes a bit one-note. Artful to move from the smug tedium of “If you don’t let us dream..” and his better, wrenchingly moving, literal depiction of refugees in Lampedusa , and to turn up unexpectedly in this new context.

 

For this is the glamorous, pantalooned and be-ruffed and candlelit Elizabethan world of the Wanamaker where one can be tempted to stay cozily safe in history, drawing only psychological messages rather than political ones. Not this time: Lustgarten’s period piece, spectacularly set by Jon BAusor and directed by Matthew Dunster,  may take place in the court of Elizabeth I and her (real) spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, but it is mischievously and cleverly designed as a full-on satire of the empire-building instinct of the intelligence and propaganda world, from Le Carré to Fake News.
 

 

The parallel is everywhere. There’s the sense that as new money and people flow to London, so do new heresies and threats; the way that spooks can spook governments into fresh paranoia, and the feeling that tricky populations can be quietened by “a royal wedding, and setting the poor against recent immigrants”. It’s there in the determination of Walsingham to watch as Burleigh says “every beer-maker, washerwoman, steeplejack and kitchen drudge”. It is there in the paranoid conviction we all have from time to time, that some near-miss terrorist attacks are faked by the security empires for their own sake.  This happens, splendidly, in one moment as a drunken innkeeper takes the fall. Another sharp parallel is in the cynical decision to recruit cheap troops from agricultural labourers starving after the Enclosures. How many modern squaddies are from care homes, from hopeless backgrounds, from unemployment?

 

 

 

It moves along well, with only a few moments of Pythonesque absurdity:  notably in a trapdoor-and-dagger meeting of double-double agents. But there’s real darkness in whispers from the darkness as the spymaster reads dispatches, and in the crazy chill of his conviction that Catholics are demons. Visually, it is a treat: candelabras and braziers, torches and lanterns and dimly seen nooses , a headman’s axe, a rack; candles dramatically used with a fine threatening dowsing scene as the first act ends.   Lustgarten’s cynical rage about war propaganda is magnificent; when Walsingham has at last persuaded the chalkfaced queen to kill Mary Queen of Scots, Sir Philip Sidney’s plea is that his death shall not be used for propaganda. The second act sees exactly that happening: massive mourning, and eloquent rage from the hero’s daughter “You promised not to use his name to make roisterers in shabby taverns swear oaths to the Queen..you wrapped his bones in a flag and jiggled them to make them dance!”.

 

 

 

This second act is more gratuitously gruesome, not one for younger schoolchildren, with the martyr Southwell on the rack spitting defiance through his screams to make the Guantanamo point about the futility of creating martyrs. At last the Armada comes – fine model ships aflame on a trolley – and the decline of Walsingham is paralleled by the Queen’s cry “Your kind of knowledge does not make us safe, only more afraid”. Burleigh (Ian Redford) predicts jovially that the apparatus of surveillance invented by Walsingham will be with us for ever.

 

 

And so it is. That there actually was a real Armada – a serious threat from powerful Spain backed by the Papist south and enemies within – does not deflect our author from his moral. But it’s a terrific play for the Wanamaker, and Aidan McArdle giving Walsingham some poignant final reality. So we can forgive the author’s conviction that Elizabeth I (Tara Fitzgerald) was no virgin queen but well into rough sex with the Tower of London rackmaster and all comers. Boys will be boys.

 

box office http://www.shakespeares-globe.com to 16 dec

rating four  4 Meece Rating

 

 

 

 

 

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EVERYBODY’S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE Apollo, W1

A GLORIOUS, GANGLING, GRACEFUL PRESENT FROM SHEFFIELD

This is glorious. Hits the bullseye. It’s about kids – the boiling mass of hormones that is a year 11 class grappling with GCSEs and half-formed hope. It’s about a mother and son, anger and kindness and making the best of a bad-dad deal. It’s about our loosening, gentling new attitudes to quirky individuality, gay normality and gender images (not gender itself – our Jamie has no wish to be a girl). It’s about defying inhibitions and sticking by your mates.

 

It bears witness also to the upswelling energy from far beyond London. After a TV documentary showed Jamie Campbell, the Co.Durham boy who fought to wear a dress to his school prom. Dan Evans of Sheffield Theatres commissioned director Jonathan Butterell, with writers Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom Macrae, to make it a musical. It ran a humble 19 performances there, but Nica Burns of Nimax checked it out, encouraged new touches and songs, and brings it up West with a sharp new set by Anna Fleischle, to do battle with the greats. Its star John McCrae is not yet a “name”, most of the young cast are on a West End debut. And they rock it: confident, hilarious and heartfelt. And though it is fictionalized , the real Jamie and his Mum recognize its truthfulness.

 

McCrae’s Jamie – a ganglingly graceful streak of a boy – is seen first lounging and cheeking with the rest in a careers class (“Fork lift driver” it offers). He has a camp puppyish exhibitionist streak, leading a larky chorus, already ‘out’ at school and defying the macho meathead Dean (Luke Baker). His best friend is Pritti, an earnest Muslim girl who plans to be a doctor and applauds his nerve “You’re fearless! You’re Emmeline Pankhurst!” . Nicely, there is another hijab-wearing girl in the class who is more airhead: nice for Muslim girls to know they don’t all HAVE to be swots, doctors, or Tory ministers. At home, Jamie has an amused, weary single Mum (Josie Walker), dumped by his Dad after a shotgun marriage. She pretends that his Dad cares and sends him presents, while in fact he is a disgusted homophobe who wanted a “real boy”.

 

Jamie’s pain about this, beneath the camp bravado, is perfectly caught in body language , moments of hunched teenage misery and self-doubt. When he goes to “Victor’s Secret” for a prom dress he finds a better male mentor in Phil Nichol’s Hugo, a gruff bluff figure whose own alter ego down the clubs is Loco Chanelle. He learns about the defiance of the genre: “a drag queen is feared!”. The point is sharply made that even in the age of Grayson Perry you need courage to diverge from the norm: it is only at home that a boy can safely strut his high heels around the kitchen in sequinned hotpants and school tie, saying “Muuum! do you know nothing about divergent gender identities?”.

 

Josie Walker is tremendous as Mum, and her friend Ray (Nina Anwar) a stalwart support: when Jamie says “I don’t think I have a Dad anymore” she barks “You’ve got me!” There are sharp confrontations in class, especially when the demure earnest Pritti rounds on Dean. After a brief, dangerous silence Dean’s best mate just shakes his head sadly with “She nailed you..”. Some people cheered.

 

But a musical stands or falls on the big numbers. Dan Gillespie (of the chart-topping The Feeling) channels both disco energy and lyrical grace; Tom Macrae’s lyrics never jangle but provide neatly casual delights (“John was an agent, but not a gent – took more than his ten-percent!”). The drag-club ‘girls’ have a sharp “Over the Top” number and some pleasingly crude banter, and Lucie Shorthouse as Pritti delivers a really lovely, earnest ballad of identity and suppressed love, “It means Beautiful”. As for Mum, Josie Walker had us on our feet cheering after the immense “He’s my Boy”.

 

They’re musical novice creators, but it is finely built: every song pushes the story and the feeling forward, every joke hits. The moral is subtler than mere gay-lib or modish gender-fluidity, as Jamie’s hard-won confidence spills out to help all the others. Even, in a very touching coda, Dean. And in this age of suspicious social division, there is something cheering about one Muslim girl – Pritti – gently saying she likes her hijab because “It keeps me simple, frames who I am”, while the other plans a prom dress with a squeak of “Allah doesn’t mind a bit of sparkle, as long as you cover up”. Joyful: heart and skill, restraint and jokes, joy and gentleness.

Box office 0330 333 4809 – to April
rating five  5 Meece Rating

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THE RETREAT Park theatre, N4

MANTRAS AND MONEY

 

There is a useful play to be written about the lure of fashionable Western Buddhist retreats, and the way discontented rat-racers can transfer their competitive ambition directly into “me-and-my-enlightenment” oneupmanship without breaking a step. Or remembering the bit about faith making you nicer to other people. Sadly, this is not quite that play, though it has the bones to be one.

 

Still, Sam Bain, wisecracking creator of laddish shows like Fresh Meat and Peep Show, at least opens up the subject with his stage debut: a 90minute three-hander.  Luke (Samuel Anderson) is seen in a nicely conceived Scottish stone cell, shaven-headed and punctiliously balletic in his opening obeisances and Oms . He’s got a nice floor altar and brass bowl with a satisfying ‘ting!”. All the kit. We will learn that he is an affluent city worker who has decided to sell his flat to build a temple ( without mentioning it to his riotous, druggy younger brother and flatmate) and to get ordained as a monk.

 

 

His meditation is disturbed by the noisy arrival of the said brother Tony (Adam Deacon) ostensibly to tell him that some forgotten uncle has died but really, one quickly suspects, just to check up on him. Luke’s sanctimonious prating of his newfound beliefs is punctured repeatedly by Tony’s incredulous contempt; when Luke says he is too busy with his meditation to go to a funeral Tony delivers the unmatchable line “So, some important sitting to be done? And there’s nobody else with an arse?”. St Benedict (laborare est orare!) would be proud of him.

 

It would be more interesting if we were allowed to see some proper emotional underpinning: clearly Tony needs his big brother, and not only for somewhere to live. But whenever it lurches in an interesting direction Bain opts to put in a sharp sour bloke-joke instead. Mind you, some of them are good ones, especially from the hilarious Deacon.

 

 

When the third party, Tara, arrives disguised as her favourite goddess in green body paint and a cardboard tiara, the lads’ various lusts and confusions take over, though Tony’s attempt to talk her language is very funny. The dénouement reveals a flicker of proper brotherhood and a revelation about the financial underpinning of this holy operation.

 

 

It’s enjoyable, though others in the audience laughed more than I did. Kathy Burke directs, which at times made me surprised because her other work – notably The Quare Fella and Once A Catholic – has always been well-paced and engrossing. But perhaps because of the switch from TV to stage, and a conscious awareness that it’s a different and more demanding medium for audiences, Bain gives us far too much static talk without progress. And the talk isn’t quite as wonderful as it has to be to get away with that.

 

 

box office 0207 870 6876 to 2 dec
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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THE SUPPLIANT WOMEN Young Vic Se1

AN ANCIENT CRY, A TIMELESS THRILL

 

Across 25 centuries comes a harsh cry: not of war,  not from savage male throats but from a swaying, chanting, defiant chorus of young women demanding, in the name of the gods and of humanity, freedom, asylum and choice. Aeschylus’ early play , a fragment of  a lost trilogy,  could hardly be more topical. Firstly because the Danaids, arriving on the shore of Argos to beg asylum of King Pelagius, are refugees. Secondly because  because they are women refusing to be treated as chattels. Threatened with forced marriage in  Egypt, they have taken ship, occupied the sacred temple and assure the king that they will, if denied, turn to “the one god who never refuses asylum…death” and hang themselves by their black veils from the holy statues.

 

 

They mean it. They deliver great powerful speeches (what is that ancient magic in a tight chorus that shakes the heart?). They express both plea and defiance, fear and pride.  Sometimes they sing , sometimes voice deep ancient cries of oi and ai! The 27 bodies often move as one with sharp precision,  making shapes as if they were  a single resolute creature.  They are both poignant and terrifying. At one point in pitch darkness they become just points of the candle-lanterns each carries, until the flaring torches of their pursuers surround them and illuminate shapes of resistance, red fire and pale candlelight mingling and separating.  They are never offstage, and drive the action every one of the 90 thrilling minutes.

 

 

And barring their leader (Gemma May)) they are untrained amateurs, a community chorus of Southwark locals pledged only to rehearse for two months of free time.  Credit to the trainers, including Mary King, and to the extraordinary score by John Browne which drives the tension, percussive and weird on the ancient Aulos double pipe. But credit first to the volunteers. They achieve something unique. And although marauders and townspeople also appear, the latter voicing welcome and the eternal fear that “refugees bring cold winds” – most credit to that central suppliant chorus.
 

 

The script is by David Greig who (as i noted lately in his bizarre and wonderful Prudencia Hart) has the ability to write demotic, even slangy, modern language in a rhythmic style which makes it timeless, folkish.  This production by Ramin Gray for the Actors Touring Company delighted Edinburgh in 2016  and is a perfect fit for the young Vic with its tradition of community work.  It is, as in each of its touring venues (350 people in total have been the choruses) prefaced in Greek tradition by a local dignitary acknowledging the honour of supporting drama and pouring a libation to Dionysius. On press night it was John Glen MP.

 

 

The women are diversely  and colourfully in modern casual dress : loose , for the fluid exciting movement by Sacha Milavic Davies is central. That makes the formal politician- grey suit of Oscar Batterham’s King Pelasgos all the more strikingly apt: across the centuries he is every politician anxiously weighing up humane duty against, in his case, a real risk of war. “I am lashed to this quarrel, my boat hawsers tangled,…if a man intervenes in another man’s war he’s in trouble for ever”.

 
He does the right thing: the women argue a while with the townspeople over their ferocious determination to stay man-free, and Danaos the captain gently warns that migrants must always behave well and gently in their new land: “We’re foreign. We must be respectful and meek..make clear you committed no murder or crime”.
It is Europe 2017, and all times and all migrations. Wonderful.

 

box office 020 7922 2922 to 25 nov
rating five

5 Meece Rating

 

 

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LEAF BY NIGGLE Touring

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI MEETS MINDFULNESS IN THE MIDST OF TOLKIEN’S TIMEWASTING

J.R.R. Tolkien, among many other things, is famous for two: his unending ability to procrastinate, and his heated (and repeated) refusals that his work could (or should) be read allegorically. He dismissed those who looked for the mud of the Somme in the grim marshes on the borders of Mordor with cold contradiction; he may well have spent more time playing Patience than writing or working; and he would no doubt have been flatly unimpressed by the myriad allegories my brain kept irrepressibly chasing through Leaf by Niggle, a tale entirely free from elves or dwarves (though its enervating, endearing hero, “a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make… but did not hurry with his preparations” might surely have just a pinch of hobbit). This is a story whose undoubted magic is surreal and spiritual, rather than wrought by sorcery: and its intensely imagined world, told with folklore simplicity, seems to glow with hidden meanings from every well-judged word, here delivered complete on stage with exquisite clarity by Richard Medrington in a virtuoso solo performance.

Puppet State Theatre’s production of Leaf by Niggle starts gently, discursively; the story comes upon us unawares, almost in spite of itself, but grows inexorably gripping, even terrifying, as it twists dynamically from lackadaisical charm to surreal brutalism, and onwards to curious, open-ended enlightenment. Performer Richard Medrington begins by telling us his own history: how, long ago, he thought of adapting Leaf by Niggle for puppetry performance, but the idea never got off the ground; how he started writing an enormous fantasy novel, then “triumphantly!” put it aside unfinished. Irrepressibly, life always kept getting in the way of his creative projects: life’s practical, intimate family tasks, like repairing a house damaged by flood, or going through the accumulated treasures of a large family attic when his elderly mother needed to move into sheltered housing. But this, he realised, on re-reading it several years later, is exactly what Leaf by Niggle is about: the “tremendous crop of interruptions” which constantly distract us from our chosen task if we let them. The props on stage, accordingly, are harvested from Medrington’s own “crop”, with many glorious finds from that attic: each one provokes its own history or memory, often intersecting with parallels or similar pathways in Tolkien’s life (or Niggle’s). Leaf by Niggle thus takes shape inside a peculiarly personal, well-fitting frame which feels genuinely original: and Medrington’s circumstantial, disarmingly direct chat quietly morphs into a masterclass of assured, compelling storytelling, Medrington acting all Tolkien’s small cast of characters in turn, against a gentle, intriguing folk-instrumental soundscape by Karine Polwart and Michael John McCarthy.

Niggle is a “footler,” “the sort of painter who could paint leaves better than trees”, and his kind heart constantly distracts him from the canvas he endeavours (but keeps failing) to finish, often helping friends and neighbours instead, to Niggle’s resigned annoyance. The gentle chaos of his life doesn’t suit the Government, and, torn summarily from his art, he is plunged into the horrifying ordeal of the Workhouse Infirmary. But here, in a punishing and boring work regime, “he was becoming master of his own time; he began to know just what he could do with it.” Focusing steadily on tasks which are themselves a distraction, he unlocks, and learns to harness, an extraordinary power of potential. Returning to his work, the results are astonishing.

You’ll have to see what you think it is about. While every tempting allegory can be teasingly dislodged, for me, it was about life, death, Purgatory and Paradise; or about artistic struggle, frustration and fulfilment; or about the price we pay to learn to cultivate raw talent into honed skill… And each time my every allegorical reading slid off the next corner of his multi-faceted plot, Tolkien just winked at me calmly. Ultimately, it’s not about deciding or imposing a final answer. It’s about noticing the thoughts this story provokes in you, mindfully – and learning from them.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Rating: Five 5 Meece Rating and a touring mouse: Touring Mouse wide

Touring across the UK until 25 November: details here  

Reviewed at Norwich Puppet Theatre on 15 November 2017 (but no puppets involved!)

Presented by Puppet State Theatre with the support of the Tolkien Trust, the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh and Creative Scotland

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MISS JULIE Jermyn St Theatre, SW1

SEX, SHAME , THE STROP OF THE RAZOR

 

 

I rashly confessed on Twitter that I spent the afternoon before this astringent production of a Strindberg play revelling in the happy furry world of Paddington 2. Got softened up.  Defences down,  comforted by marmalade.   So you may now appreciate the nervous collapse brought on by 95 minutes of this always alarming 1888 play.   Down from the Theatre by the Lake for its London premiere, this is a new, spare, fluent adaptation by Howard Brenton (whose THE BLINDING LIGHT a few weeks back demonstrated just how far he is willing to lurch into the crazier interludes of Strindberg’s soul).

 

 

Tom Littler directs, and is admirably unafraid to start leisurely, almost lazy, with desultory kitchen conversation , a meal eaten, long pauses and passing remarks between valet and cook behind the green baize doors of the Earl’s house while a midsummer servants’ dance is faintly heard beyond the door. But as Miss Julie joins them the pace rises and tragic energy swells, baleful and tense. It is like spending ninety minutes watching a clear, delicate polished piece of fine glass shiver, creak ominously, crack and finally shatter all over you.
 

If there is one image which will haunt my dreams it is James Sheldon as Jean the valet – clever, discontented, seductive, ambitiously angry –  stropping his cutthroat razor over by the sink. Swish, scrape, swish: its metronomic, relentless rhythm is in ominous contrast to the increasingly hysterical young mistress of the house, skittering and jerking across the kitchen, gabbling crazily to the impassive cook Kristin about the escape the three of them could make – a new life, Switzerland, trains, a hotel, art galleries, rich Englishmen to fleece or marry… No.  It’ll come to no good.  Swish, scrape, swish goes the razor, the dead pet bird drips on the sideboard.

 

Well, we know the end, because it is a famous play. But there is something particularly and deliciously unnerving about this production, on the face of it more straightforward than other recent adaptations (like the unbearably irritating Schaubühne Berlin “reinvention for the multimedia age” by Katie Mitchell). It is recognizably, though simply, a late-19c big house kitchen; no gimmicky updating. Jean has the fastidious pomposity of an upper servant who dreads being back amid the ploughmen (he can’t bear Kristin, his cook fiancée, ruffling his immaculate hair) . He brings it an edge of florid, handsome coarseness, the resentful brute slyly peeping out of the smooth exterior even early on as he piously reports the young mistress’ wild unsuitable dancing. Izabella Urbanowicz as Kristin is steady, pious, patient and weary, the social realist among them. And Charlotte Hamblin is magnificent as the volatile Julie, invading the servants’ territory in a midsumme garland, seemingly blithe with Sloaney entitlement, flirting, needling Jean until their disastrous consummation is inevitable.

 

 

It is on the face of it the slightest of stories: posh girl sleeps with valet, valet hopes for advancement and money, things are not so smooth. The brilliance, here clearer and sharper than I have yet seen it in any production, lies in exposing not only the disastrousness of the social and gender hierarchy o the day (a few years before Ibsen did the same) but the peculiar, private and individual disaster of these personalities.Jean and Julie are both needy, but want different things from one another. Sex, which seems a simple answer, is in fact the catalyst for disaster. Female panic and loss meets male rage, Sheldon’s Jean at one point quite terrifyingly vile. It holds you gripped in pity and terror, the angst of a bygone age rattling and echoing down the years with perennial truth. People don’t change: read the crime stories in the papers. There will always be an emotional and social impasse somewhere: that razor strop echoes down the century, swish, scrape, swish.

 

Box office 0207 287 2875 http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk
to 2 dec
rating five

5 Meece Rating

 

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