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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NETWORK Lyttelton, SE1

PROFIT AND  A PROPHET: RANTINGS AND RATINGS

 

 

I came to  this a day late for tedious domestic reasons, but
since the original film is about a news anchor , Howard Beale, going messianically nuts when he is sacked after 25 years for falling ratings – and then becoming a TV star for ranting against TV –  I felt a natural empathy.   Having  just spent six months sulking (alas not messianically) after 34 years of a Radio 4 show (without falling ratings), I felt a certain wistful solidarity.   Besides, the script is by Lee Hall and direction by Ivo van Hove, who never Van-hoves into view without at least being interesting. So, with yesterday’s first nighters starring it between 2 and 5, the humble mice needed a view.

 

 

It must be said that Ivo the Inventive has gone over the top this time. The wide stage is split in three – a glass TV control cubicle one side, a vast central screen, and on the right some onstage seats where richer and earlier-booking audience members  are actually eating (they also score a disconcerting closeup view of a very funny quickie between Michelle Dockery’s programme chief Diana and the angsty midlife Schumacher). I think the idea is to suggest that we all watch TV  while snogging or snacking, giving only grudging attention to the celebby performers we don’t care much about until they go nuts or get Yewtreed.  Which is, broadly, true.

 

 

In the event, it deserves  neither  2 nor 5, but wavers uncertainly, minute by minute in between.  Bryan Cranston certainly earns  every  award going for his craggy, convincing  Beale, moving from Dimblebyesque authority to a crazed Learlike  breakdown, a self-indulgent, unwell despair. WHen he steadies, he is more  than powerful in his detailed denunciations of  capitalism, and marvellously weird when the corporate boss Jensen (a terrific sinister Richard Cordery ) convinces him that only the money system works  now that there are no democratic nations only corporations (a slightly dated list of course, but we fill in Apple and Google for ourselves).

 

 

Cranston  is,  however ,given one or two too many cracker-motto truisms to cope with,  especially at the end. For which I blame Mr Hall.   It is the dementedly keen Diana who is  strangely the most credibly written: not least when she starts buying terrorists’ home videos, or analysing ratings while giving a businesslike shag to her colleague.  I think I’ve met her somewhere..

 

As to staging, there is mild irritation sometimes when a live  conversation is near-invisible in the clutter of screens and set, so we have to see it on the big screen: the pre- filmed bits fit in with technical perfection but add to the distancing and cooling of the real, hot theatricality the live cast bring.  This Katie-Mitchell I-heart-video experimentalism in theatre is becoming, dare one mutter, a bit of a bore.

 

And the message? Some things strike home hard, especially the rise of news-tertainment: some aspects feel dated now that  TV is being superseded by digital and social media. So does the rant against Saudi petrodollars – “you are owned by half a dozen medieval fanatics” – in the age of China. The  show runs two hours straight, and a cut or two wouldn’t hurt. And though the famous “I’m mad as hell” shout is well staged with vox-pop surround-sound video, it palls a bit when we have to join in for the third time.

 

But it’s a different night out. And  Cranston is fantastic, a proper star.

 

Box office.   Sold out to end of the run (24 march) BUT
tickets are still available through Day Seats and Friday Rush.
rating three   3 Meece Rating

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QUIZ Minerva, Chichester

MULTIPLE CHOICE IN A MANIPULATED WORLD

 

 

“We in this country” says the red judge grandly “Do not have trial by media or by mobs”. Hmm. Tell that to anyone now staring confusedly at the wreckage of reputation and career because an employers took instant fright at a Twitterstorm. James Graham’s new play is a sharp-edged, finally rather poignant comedy which reimagines the affair of Major Charles Ingram. He was convicted – with his wife and a supposed accomplice – of fraud, after his 2001 win in ITV’s “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”. The case was treated as riotous entertainment by he world’s media as m’learned friends argued over whether significant coughs from the studio audience had been giving him clues as he hesitated – rather showily – over multiple-choice double-your-money questions.

 

 

Characteristically intelligent and twistily playful, set on a hellishly shiny neon-edged TV-studio floor, the play explores the crossover between the serious and logical worlds of law and of democracy and the shimmer , manipulation and deception of light entertainment. Himself clearly a keen amasser of facts, Graham enters gleefully in to the world of quiz fanatics (Mrs Ingram and her brother were obsessive autodidacts and Millionaire addicts) . The light-hearted first part of Daniel Evans’ showy production brings gales of laughter as he explains the development of quiz shows from the 70s, with Keir Charles nailing it not only as Chris Tarrant but as Des O”Connor, Jim Bowen, Leslie Crowther and Bruce Forsyth; there is a Syd-Yobbo sketch of the head of ITV programmes David Liddiment, and Greg Haiste slimily watchful as the Celador creator of Millionaire, accurately targeting the psychology of competitive greed, tension, trivia-addiction and the fact that audiences really like to see people sweat. How far these shows were precursors of today’s reality TV becomes suddenly clear. So is Graham’s merciless exploration of the “profiling” of competitors , and the makers’ irritation whentoo many Millionaire candidates were straight, male, middle-class know-alls like the Ingram family, rather than their wider target audience desired. Did this influence the case they built? The edited tapes which made the coughing louder? Who knows?

 

 

The first half had me a bit impatient, fun though it was, because the queasy, toxic, exploitative world of light-ent TV is almost too well evoked. Mr Evans could well trim some of the immersive pub-quizzery (though the electric voting lanyards we all wear have a vital role at the end). But Graham’s gift is always for curious, not unkindly observation of the way that people are. So the human story at its core intensifies, and saddens. GAvin Spokes as Ingram himself is marvellous: a dutiful soldier now deskbound in Procurement: not the brightest, a bit bumbling but entirely decent , worried by his wife and brother-in-law’s obsession. He is drawn into it and coached by his wife as the next family candidate (the session where he learns 90’s pop culture factoids is wonderful, involving both a Hilda Ogden cameo on the revolving ring round the arena and a rendering of Ian Gow’s speech against TV in Parliament (a sharp Graham point here about government-by-personality: topical again on the very day of Gordon Brown’s glum Today interview about why we didn’t love him enough).

 

 

 

The defending barrister’s speech is electric, and the winner’s downfall despite it intensely affecting. In our preent age of public shaming, it is salutary to remember that apart from him resigning his commission and military identity, the Ingrams family had their home attacked, children bullied, dog kicked to death and pet cat shot. Evans and Graham stage that last fact so sharply, shamingly and gently that you shudder. Britain can be vile. Doubt still hangs over the conviction: we all had to vote at the end, and on the opening night it was Not Guilty.

 

 

extended: http://www.cft.org.uk or 01243 781312 to 9 December
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS Playhouse SW1

NEW GENERATION REVIEWER MICHAEL ADAIR UNMOVED BY MANSPREADING BUT LOVES THE SWEARING

The return of Glengarry Glen Ross feels rather timely. There is something striking about a play consisting entirely of middle-aged men arguing amongst themselves and battling for their place in the world. But where the idea is relevant, here the execution feels anything but.

 
David Mamet’s Pulitzer prizewinning drama about the dubious and duplicitous acts of four Chicago salesmen has been revived at the Playhouse. We meet Ricky Roma, Dave Moss, George Aaronow and Shelly Levene, each desperate to get their hands on ‘the Glengarry leads’ – the contact details of promising prospective buyers for the Glengarry Highlands in Florida, a piece of prime real estate, which each of our salesman is desperately trying to flog, with the ultimate prize being that they might just get to keep their jobs. As we’ve come to expect from these kinds of characters, they’re willing to lie, cheat, bribe and steal to get any sort of competitive advantage over their colleagues.

 
The premise is simple, which makes the entire first act all the more baffling. It is the slowest of slow burns, with three separate scenes all comprising of two men, legs spread, talking at length to each other over mugs of coffee, in a Chinese restaurant. The dialogue really flickers in and out of life – whole sections of exposition go missing as our British actors in particular seem to be concentrating more on maintaining their, admittedly rather good, American accents rather than delivering any weight. It’s a sacrifice that struggles to pay off.

 
It does, eventually, warm up and the starry cast is undeniably likeable, Stanley Townsend has the shtick of Jackie Mason with the timbre of Jeffrey Tambor as Shelley ‘The Machine’ Levine, a desperate and faded old schmuck well past his prime. Christian Slater provides the glamour and credibility that the role of top salesman Ricky Roma deserves -with his accent already in the bag, it is his effortless charm that commands the most attention and is a standout performance.

 
Where this play shines is in its Thick of It-esque descent into sweary oblivion – Slater provides us with the best moment with his furious tirade against Kris Marshall, playing boss John Williamson – whose role generally is to lean on things and get shouted at.
Credit to designer Chiara Stephenson, the set for the second act is a thing of beauty, a ransacked office covered in scattered papers and piles of cardboard boxes, broken window shutters and chipboard repairs, however it’s arrival seems to further highlight just how much of a non-event the first act is. There were some real flashes of promise in the second as our cast came together – the chemistry rose to a simmer and there was almost even a whiff of there being something at stake.

 
Ultimately, this feels somewhat like a missed opportunity. It’s amusing in places, and ends in much finer fashion than it begins – but feels disappointingly hollow for too much throughout. If you are a fan of watching men sat with their legs spread and talking loudly at each other, then this might well be the show for you.

https://www.playhousetheatrelondon.com/tickets/
Box Office: 0844 871 7631
rating  two   2 meece rating

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TWELFTH NIGHT Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

A PERFECT TWELVE

 

“What country, friend, is this?” That soon becomes clear, in this beautiful rendition of Shakespeare’s melancholy comedy of love and misapprehension. From the first glimpse of Orsino’s lounging household beneath its golden dome, with the Duke (Nicholas Bishop, camp as ninepence at this point) dashingly painting his muse Curio as a near-nude Cupid, we know just where we are. Ravishingly designed by Simon Higlett (it’ll look fabulous on screen too) the country where director Christopher Luscombe has landed us is the England of the 1890’s. It is the land of Wilde and Beardsley and Ruskin and Sickert, of Yellow-Book aestheticism and dandyish decadence and romantic exoticism.

 

 

That Imperial-era Orientalism makes it all the more apt that Viola and Sebastian, alien siblings landed and thinking one another drowned, are Indian: Dinita Gohil and Esh Alladi. Thus when Viola joins Duke Orsino’s court it is understandable that he can wear modern suits while she casts off the sari for the gold tunic , red sash and braided pillbox hat of an easternesque page. It is fitting too that Feste, in Olivia’s otherwise soberly late-Victorian household, should have a dash of exotic sartorial glamour, while Toby Belch is just a big bluff waistcoated bully and Aguecheek a hilarious dotard in breeches and Argyle socks with (at one point) a sort of deerstalker motoring-hat. It is perhaps no accident that this glorious production comes neck-and-neck with the film Victoria and Abdul, about HM’s preoccupation with her own Indian “munshi”.

 

 
This perfection of design and setting contributes not a little to the real heart of the play: the gender-bending, the unbalancing sibling griefs of Olivia and Viola, the love and delusion and desire which shine romantic in the heroines and ludicrous in the shamed Malvolio. Not a nuance is missed, not a joke fails, Shakespeare’s balance of dark and light shimmers as bright as the golden dome and as dark as the wood where the “mad” steward is confined.

 

 

There are lines sometimes lost which grow new feeling , emotional meanings teased out with throwaway precision, absurdities gleefully milked . The garden eavesdropping scene is wonderfully done, as the three plotters play garden-statues around the ecstatic Malvolio (Adrian Edmondson capering for England). You haven’t lived till you see Michael Cochrane’s fabulously hopeless Aguecheek suddenly popping head-up from behind a very explicit neo-Grecian statue, or John Hodgkinson’s Belch providing the Venus de Milo’s arms. It is also oddly shattering how clear Hodgkinson makes it that Toby Belch is a real Bullingdon-bully and Aguecheek , for all the merry dancing, his fool. HIs final contempt of the rich knight, which I had forgotten, is up there with Prince Hal’s “I know thee not, old man”. It strikes as much of a chill as Malvolio’s humiliation: and that, again, is deepened in significance by the dismay of Kara Tointon’s finely drawn Olivia, and Beruce Khan’s calculatedly capering Feste, fuelled by anger and melancholy.

 

 

AS for the gender-bending, we have lately seen Simon Godwin’s good NT production turning the steward into Malvolia, with consequent lesbian desire; but what happens here is, oddly, still more fluidly exciting, which befits the bi-curious fashion of today. Viola’s veiled confessional scene with Orsino – “My father had a daughter loved a man..” shimmers with meaning, their kiss beneath the absurd golden dome shaking the heart. Dinita Gohil, who at first I feared was too declamatory, gives real emotional weight and purity to the scene. The final explanation scene rattles, beneath the joy and laughter, with a sense that while the twins are happy, both Olivia and Orsino are settling for conventional heterosexuality not without a bat-squeak of regret for the homoerotic longings into which they were drawn by mere costume.

 

 

 

But the whole ensemble is perfect: Vivien Parry gives us Maria as a vindictive virago, her dark strength indicating that she will keep the fearful farting Belch in order once she nabs him; Sarah Twomey, Verity Kirk and Sally Cheng are lovely maids, Far more of the company than usual are on an RSC debut season, and there is an exuberance which warms the whole evening, culminating when they dance us off, Globe-style, in glorious vaudeville echoes of the earlier drinking scene. I’d go again tomorrow. Hey ho, the wind and the rain…

 

box office rsc.org.uk 01789 403493 to February
Live screening at many cinemas on 14 February, Valentine’s Day. Don’t miss it.
rating five  5 Meece Rating

oh, and a design mouse for Mr Higlett:

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WAIT UNTIL DARK New Wolsey Ipswich, & touring

LIGHTS OUT,, CLUTCH YOUR SEAT

 

To be honest I was slightly daunted by the PR point that Karina Jones is the first blind actress in recent years to play Susy (hers was the Audrey Hepburn part in the 1967  film, based like Dial M for Murder on a stage play by Frederick Knott). Though disability casting is great, it felt a bit like special pleading. But Alistair Whatley’s Original Theatre Company tours some terrific work, so I went along and found myself wrong.

 

For Karina Jones is well worth seeing anywhere (she doubles as a circus-skills aerialist, by the way, clearly not a woman to be daunted by anything). And the credibility of her moves, negotiating with accustomed skill round the detailed basement-flat set, is obviously greater than most sighted actors could convey.

 

 

 

But more than that, she has a quality about her – a sort of valiant glamour – which absolutely matches the role of Suzy, beleaguered in her flat with her husband lured away, vulnerable but steely, grasping at straws of understanding while three con-men manoeuvre through the doll-cocaine-smuggling-hospital-double-dealing-telephone-call intricacy of Knott’s plot. She’s wonderful.

 

 

 

Well supported, too. Shannon Rewcroft is the Awful Child Gloria who helps out with shopping (she becomes vital in the second act, very funny and spookily convincing as an 11-year-old ) . And the criminals are good. In particular Tim Treloar as Roat, the murderous one, exudes an excellent suave nastiness, and Jack Ellis hs a credible helplessness as the supposedly friendly one, while he and Graeme Brookes’ Croker try to work well outside their smalltime comfort zone under the evil Roat.

 

 

 

The plot could become a little tiresome, were it not that our focus is so strongly on Karina Jones: a modern feminist sensitivity applauds her brilliance in gaining advantage by disabling all the lights (total darkness, of which Ipswich was sternly warned, no leaving your seat). So I got a bit irritable when Roat seemed to be getting the upper hand by mere boring old-fashioned Hitchcock violence.
But it did the business, got both gasps and the odd whimper from a keen audience, and is altogether one of the classiest of thrillers, neatly done. And I want more of Karina Jones.
box office 01473 295900 to 11 Dec http://www.wolseytheatre,co.uk

Touring Mouse widetouring on to Cardiff, YOrk , Guildford till 2 Dec http://www.waituntildark.co.uk
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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THE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP Touring East

LITTLE NELL, ON THE ROAD AGAIN

 

 

Of all Dickens’ works this – originally a serial so gripping that American readers rushed the docks for the new edition – is such a farrago of preposterous, barnstorming picaresque sentimentality that the Irish leader Daniel O”Connell famously burst into tears at the ending, and threw it out of a train window. Oscar Wilde on the other hand said you’d need a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.
Perfect for the tirelessly prolific duo of Common Ground – Julian Harris and Pat Whymark – to take up, shake about, and tour with their trademark combination of shoestring inventiveness and Whymark’s evocative music.

 

 
So we have Harries (who also designed the extremely portable one-night-at-a-time set) as Nell’s Grandfather . And, with a sub-Sewell accent, as the venal notary Mr Brass. There’s a splendid Eloise Kay as 13-year-old Nell, doubling entertainingly in the same frock, give or take a mob-cap or two, as a terrified Mrs Quilp and the downtrodden maid “Marchioness”. Joe Leat is a foul-spoken Scott, feckless brother Fred and others – most memorably the boot-faced Sally Brass, in a sort of clerical hat and world-beating deadpan scowl. Tristan Teller is among others a rather beguiling Dick Swiveller in purple velvet and high boots, and Ivan Wilkinson most memorable when being the villainous Quilp. Not perhaps quite as dwarfish or hunched as Dickens wanted him in those more robust days, but stubbily vigorous in his evildoing as he cheats the sweet pair out of their Curiosity Shop and provokes their tremendous road-trip across the Midlands encountering every kind of rogue, kindly helper, employer and entertainer dear to the heart of Charles D while the Quilpies plot and pursue from the London end.

 

 

 
My reaction formed a wavering graph: pleased at the framing of it in DIckens’ own wanderings through the London streets, dipping a bit in the first act as the Dickens rhetoric can feel less than convincing on modern lips, but rising to real solid pleasure in the second half. Much of this is to the credit of Whymark’s live music – deep double-bass, guitar, and occasional squeezebox weaving atmosphere and accompanying songs which have a sense both of folksong and Victorian parlour ballad. The schoolmaster’s story of fevers and the song in the Staffordshire potteries send a real shiver down the spine, evoking a suddenly vivid sense of place and time; Dickens’ poeticism suddenly becomes sincere, the villainy richer and nastier, the nuances of Grandfather’s dependency more obvious.

 

 

A rambling tale rambled to its conclusion.   And I begin to suspect that Daniel O’Connell threw the serial out of that window as much in chagrin because it was over as in grief for the offstage demise of Nell. I often feel the same myself at the end of a good Le Carré.

 

In Ipswich next week 01473 211498
Touring Mouse wideTouring on till 25 Nov: information 07928 765153 wwwcommongroundtc.co.uk

rating four   4 Meece Rating

 

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