Monthly Archives: December 2017

BELLEVILLE Donmar WC2

SWEET YOUNG LOVE IN PARIS:  NOT.

 

 

“We’re not going the full Mousetrap here” said the press desk, “but there is a moment at the end…we’re asking..” . Fine, no spoilers. Plenty else to write about, what with the knife thing and the bath thing and the DIY toe surgery thing (eurgghh!) and the screams and the vomit. And to be honest you never expected it to end in a well. The plot, I mean: I mean: as a play Amy Herzog’s piece is a cracker, superbly acted by the two fearless principals as young Americans in Paris , and a beautifully contrasted pair, their respectable Senegalese-Muslim landlords downstairs in the shabby Belleville apartment block. Michael Longhurst’s direction is tense, alarming, sometimes funny. So the whole catastrophic unfolding of it is horribly credible.

 

 

Perhaps dangerously credible, given current widespread suspicion among over-fifties that the milllennial generation, now in late twenties, are messed-up spoilt kids prone to binge drinking, drug use and a whining egotism fed by therapy-theory and the language of obsessive, analytical self-exculpation. As in our heroine Abby’s “I am emotionally abusive. I know that about myself . I’m working on that”.

 

 

 

There is sometimes a dark pleasure to be had in being cruelly judgmental of fictional characters, as one should not be about real people. If that is your pleasure, this will feed it in a most unChristmassy way. If you can raise compassion for the central pair, that’d do too: not least because in Herzog’s artful gradual 100-minute exposition you are never completely confident about which of this couple is to blame for the other’s disastrous state.

 

 

Abby – a magnificent Imogen Poots – is first the likely candidate, nervily  and shrieking when she sees through the door her husband Zack pleasuring himself over porn, grumbling that French people don’t seem to like her, giving up her language class because “they all speak English”, and patronizing Alioune the neighbour  and landlord who has popped by to “pack a bowl” – smoke a bong – with Zack. Who owes him rent. Abby’s hysteria over being thought to be 32 – she’s 28 – is combined with understandable holiday-season homesickness and a refusal to try and stop obsessively mourning her mother after five years . None of this is endearing. She makes strident emotional demands , moans “I wish I was less disdainful of everyone and expected a little less from myself”, and after passing out dead drunk again whines “Why did you let me drink so much?” though when he tries she yowled about his male “controlling” and having her personality “subsumed” . Best place for it, I’d say.   On the other hand there is something fishy about Zack’s job, porn habit and tendency to crash into the flat of respectable Senegalese neighbours at 3 a.m. searching drunkenly for more drugs.

 

 

 

As you can tell, it’s all a bit Albee, and there is something bracingly merciless – in this age of compulsory compassion – about Herzog’s depiction of someone both mentally ill and shrilly entitled who systematically wrecks a life, marriage and indeed a flat. But it is also horribly entertaining. James Norton’s as clean-cut Zack takes a remarkable journey from calm doctorliness to utter dissolution, and Poots is fearless, pitch-perfect and generally mesmerising.   Malachi Kirby and Faith Alabi are perfect as the neighbours: younger, saner, their hardworking immigrant decency a shaming foil to the lost-soul , self-indulgent Westerneners.

 

 

I’m not sure where it gets us, but as a portrait of modern disjunction it rivets attention. And an almost silent coda , after the event of which we may not speak, is priceless. Especially when the Macbook Air goes in the binbag. That fact, by the way, wasn’t a spoiler.

 

 

Box Office 0844 871 7624 to 3 feb Principal Sponsor: Barclays
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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PINOCCHIO Lyttelton SE1

DISNEY ECHOES AT THE NT: YOU WOODN’T BELIEVE IT

 

The first glimpse of old Geppetto does make you gasp. He is immense, a huge benevolent head bowed attentively as great arms operate the strung marionettes below – who are of course real people, operating him. Like the other two giant characters who appear later, the wicked Stromboli and the deceiving Coachman, he is only a huge head and torso, with a tangle of puppeteers’ legs below. Yet somehow the illusion works, not least because Toby Olié and Bob Crowley, the designers, have given him such an expressive, moving old-man face that the unmoving mouth is somehow not noticed. And of course he looks just like Mark Hadfield, the human Geppetto among his puppetteers below.

 

 

 

Confusing? Well, it’s an old tale and a magical one. The deployment of spectacle and effects under John Tiffany’s direction and the remarkable tech and design team are not allowed to overshadow its old-fashioned moralities, though. The book, rewritten by Denis Kelly, is on touching themes: a child who knows he is different (being wooden), who has to learn unselfishness and humanity; a lonely father who searches, mourns, forgives and is rescued by the son he was trying to save. Joe Idris-Roberts has a sparky Blue-Peterish presence as Pinocchio, and Annette McLaughlin is a dignified Blue Fairy, when not fiddling with her hood or being represented by a really baffling flying blue flame across the Lyttelton’s big stage.

 

 

But there’s a curious disconnection at the play’s heart. It’s not quite a musical, not quite a solid play. Apparently this is the first time Disney has allowed the classic film’s songs to be used in a stage production: Martin Lowe has woven round them some lovely arrangements and extensions, and Hi diddle de dee works remarkably well, as does the vaudevillean rearrangement of the No Strings number as Pinocchio dances stringless with a brilliantly choreographed ensemble playing marionettes on coloured  ribbons . But there are few good tunes there, and infuriatingly repetitive -“give a little whistle” can grate, as can the injunction to wish upon a star.  Indeed Kelly’s take on Jiminy Cricket as not only a nagging conscience but a health ’n safety fusspot is a bit too annoying for an adult eye, and gallant though her operator is, she looks so uncomfortable shuffling round on her knees that adults wince.

 

 

Children? I think they’ll have fun (the problem with press nights is too few children to judge by. The ones who do come are too well-drilled to whoop). They will certainly be on Pinocchio’s side, not to mention appreciating the lairy Scottish girl Lampy who joins him on Pleasure Island with a Glasgow Saturday night  cry of “wha’s better than smashing things and farting?”.

 

The Fox, by the way, is not a puppet but a suave, sneering panto villain with an impressively manoeuvrable tail (David Langham) and as for Monstro the Whale, words fail me. With help from a brilliant lighting design, that scene set everyone gasping. And yes, there is flying. Of course there is flying. It’s Christmas.

 

box office 020 7452 3333 http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk to 10 April
rating three

 

 

 

 

 

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THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES Jermyn St Theatre, WC1

OLD DOG NEW TRICKS

 

 

After a couple of challenging takes on Strindberg, the little theatre’s new AD Mr Littler (one presumes with a “whoooff!” of relief) has booked in, and jazzed up, an ex-Peepolykus show , co-producing with English Theatre Frankfurt a mercifully un-German interpretation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dartmoor mystery. Through a dense stage fog covering the front row we see a top hat looming, hear a cry of terror and an owowowow barkint. The first victim (Sir Charles Baskerville) falls dead.

 

Whereon his two colleagues, Max Hutchinson and Simon Kane, trip on, say “thank you Shaun, excellent bit of mime” and help him up before embarking on a metatheatre explanation of what they – with Shaun Chambers – are going to do. Shaun will play Sir Henry, a Scottish doctor, a cabbie, and two distinct yokels, just to start with. Max is Holmes, plus the eventual villain, one glamorous Latina, a butlering couple and another yokel. Simon Kane, in magnificent ginger sideburns which meet his moustache, is the hapless Watson and, in passing, a spare yokel. And that’s it: Lotte Wakeham, fresh off the Matilda team, directs; the writers are Steven Canny and John Nicholson.

 

What I like – as well as the daft jokes and a ridiculous sauna scene in sock-suspenders and full tweeds — is the disciplined slickness of it: that Reduced-Shakespeare or play-that-goes-wrong quality which lifts shows like this out of the tiresome arent-we-amusing college revue level and into proper theatre. They handle rapid character changes both with and without visible panic, have one interlude of fast-moving slapstick, and cheerfully dart in and out of realism to address us. The production has a neat hand with smoke, the old upright-bed trick, a portable thicket, a fandango interlude and some knee-challengingly convincing sinkings into the Great Grimpen Mire. It is also the first time I learned that the Jermyn can muster the technology to drop a dummy corpse from the roof without anyone noticing it was up there. One of the best bargain 120 minutes-worth of Christmas nonsense around; and they even do two matinees a week.

 

 

Box office 0207 287 2875 http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk to 7 Jan
rating three   3 Meece Rating

 

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CELL MATES Hampstead, NW3

ESPIONAGE, ESCAPE, AND THE WORLD’S WORST FLATSHARE

 
This is the one that got away. Simon Gray’s 1995 play, set largely in Moscow, is about the Cold War ‘60s spy George Blake and the Irish petty criminal Sean Bourke, who sprang him from a 42-year sentence Wormwood Scrubs. It toured, but its West End run closed rapidly after Stephen Fry, playing Blake, abruptly ran away to Belgium after some lukewarm critical comments. So the play itself – intelligent, sharp, eloquent, humane and in some ways better than Alan Bennett’s Burgess and Blunt plays – was never given its due. All honour to Ed Hall for reviving it now in his theatre, fretfully apt in the age of Putin and cyberspying and just as the Death of STalin film is creeping us out in cinemas.

 

 
Gray is not interested in the jailbreak, giving only a brief prison scene where the prim, foreign-office-polished Blake makes an unlikely connection with the roguish, street-smart Bourke who edits the prison newsletter. A subsequent one establishes how , while they lay low after the ladder-and-van escape, young Sean became a touchingly kind carer to the concussed, panicking older man. But most of the action takes place in the grimly grand little Moscow apartment – beautifully evoked by Michael Pavelka – where Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Blake is dictating his pompously self-justifying memoirs on tape, and Sean Bourke turns up for what he thinks is a week’s holiday: a bit of exotic experience to add to his own book. It rapidly emerges that the two KGB minders need his passport and are wholly in charge of whether he will be allowed to leave. At all: in case he is a planted British spy.

 

 
Emmet Byrne is wonderful as Bourke, bright but out of his depth, as nonplussed, homesick and intermittently panicky as anyone would be; Streatfeild superbly evokes Blake’s twisted chilly neediness ( though it is only late on that we discover just how twisted). For the most part what unfolds before us, with ever more delays and co-dependent conflicts, is the world’s worst flatshare.
I notice that some commentators want a more homoerotic subtext, but I don’t see any need: friendship on close quarters, after all, can be as difficult as any love affair. Blake, telling himself not to be homesick for his wife and three children because “I am home – morally and spiritually – in the country of the future”, is classically (and literally) buttoned-up, vain of both his advancement in the Foreign Office and his support for Stalin’s murders. About which he comes back often and ever more unconvincingly to the old metaphor about not making an omelette without breaking eggs. ZInaida the housekeeper, played with poignant comedy and drop-dead timing by Cara Horgan, polishes the spy’s Order of Lenin medals daily and likes him to wear them, but gets on at a more human level with Rourke , who just hits the vodka and teaches her to sing Danny Boy and When Irish Eyes with glorious mispronunciations. When it becomes clear that he is trapped here for years (in the end it was two and a half) he tries making Blake’s domestic life hell.

 

 
It is a play less about political belief (Gray prefers to despise it) than about friendship and dependence between men, which he handles with heartbreaking finesse. It is often very funny, because he of all writers understood audiences: the two KGB men nicely combine cartoonish absurdity and real menace: a marvellous performance comes especially from Danny Lee Wynter, rapidly becoming one of my all time favourite character actors. He is KGB Viktor, manspreading to the max, arrogantly terse, shrugging about his gymnast daughter getting too fat, never cracking even the shadow of a smile. Indeed when he grinned at the curtain call it was quite a shock.
Hall’s production zips along, and thoroughly deserves a transfer with this cast. But you leave, as Blake delivers one last self-justifying line to tape, wondering, given the play’s theme of betrayal and shipwrecked co-dependence, about the emotional effect the defection of Fry must have had on the playwright, cast and producers. Financially it was a disaster; for Gray, who wrote a bitter book about the affair, it blew his last chance to establish himself in the West End. I doubt Mr Fry will book in. Everyone else, go for it!

 

 

Box office 020 7722 9301  www.hampsteadtheatre.com to 20 Jan

rating : five (i know everyone says oh no,  save the fives for Hamilton,  swoon swoon, but in this case it is a terrific play and I can’t imagine it being done better. So there)

5 Meece Rating

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THE TWILIGHT ZONE Almeida, N1

TO BOLDLY DREAM.. MAINLY OF PLYWOOD AND PROPS

 
THE TWILIGHT ZONE was , long before the phrase was coined, “appointment-to-view television”. In the US in the 50s and 60s families gathered round and gasped at the hokey, portentous suspenseful mystery series (like a precursor of our own Tales of the Unexpected, only with more to-camera moralizing). Adaptor Anne Washburn slightly annoyed me a few years ago with her “post-electric” MR BURNS, in which all that a post-apocalyptic civilization could remember was Simpsons plots. Now she’s back at the Almeida with a mash-up of eight of the original Twilight Zone stories, cut up , interwoven, and presented with an admirably straight face in a style retro-kitsch, camp and knowing. It is executed in a black-box of vague stars with a dangling grey TV and a stage crew half-visibly trundling the furniture around in camouflage star-studded black onesies, as in the golden age of live telly.

 

 

The ingredients are all there – Cold War neurosis, space travel nightmares, hospital drama, half-digested psychiatry, aliens, ghostly warnings , carnival grotesques, and worrying erotic dreams about Maja the Catwoman (Lizzy Connolly gets a big number in furry black tights before turning into a Hideous Bandaged Head Lady). One poor woman wakes up post-cryogenically in a future century wearing a tight tinfoil dress and black lipstick. And at one point, pleasingly, someone has to be rescued from the Fourth Dimension by the family dog. The way you know you have stumbled into the Fourth Dimension, by the way, is that there are whirly cardboard op-art discs being carried across the stage, and an upside-down placard of E=mc2.

 

It is at times hilarious, with some fine deadpan 1950s performances from the cast of 10 and three supernumaries doing the trundling. Richard Jones directs and keeps it moving, a bit confusingly at times, and the only sustainedly long section comes in the second half when the series briefly gives up on sci-fi and supernatural imaginings to portray with unnerving realism a hysterical rivalry between neighbours during a supposed nuclear attack with only one bunker available. That is the most engaging section, with a very topical race row and an attack on the latest immigrant in the striking cry of “This is a nation not a clown car , the entire world is not going to fit in here!”.

 

 
At last John Marquez as the (very straight-faced) TV host-narrator concludes by addressing us meta-theatrically with a very 1950s sermonette, reassuring us that as we leave we will not really plummet into an endless field of stars but claiming that “with a few frail bodies, the shifting of artificial light and electronic sound, fabric, plywood, can-do and most importantly your own mental technology, we have created aliens, a living dream, an imaginary child, a dimensional vortex,…” etc .

 

 

To which one can only reply “Actually, what you have created is a more like a cheerful holiday-season kitsch tribute to a former age of telly. It passed the time, no more”.

 

 

Box Office 020 7359 4404 to 27 Jan
rating three   3 Meece Rating

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL BY FITZROVIA RADIO HOUR Spiegeltent, Leicester Square

LARKING  WITHIN TENT

 

 

As an old radio hack, who started a career over forty years ago in the days when “spot effects” in drama studios were one of the more amusing jobs, I have a feeling for the quintet who create the “Fitzrovia Radio Hour”. In play-that-goes-wrong style they not only score off one another’s fictional actor-personae, but ramp up the comedy by struggling to do the sound effects. It rings true: I remember doing“footsteps” in the gravel tray while clutching the doorbell, and hitting cabbages with an axe for the more bloodstained French Revolution-themed plays.

 

 

So the comedy has a double edge of memory for me, but the group’s success has found a wider, younger following, enchanted by the retro struggles onstage. The only thing that doesn’t ring true for me is that, US-style, they’re doing it with ads and product placement. But hey, a lot of the crowd in the Spiegeltent in December are Americans too..

 

Here, four players take the first hour without “Stanley de Pfeffel”, the veteran who always plays Scrooge and who has been (possibly on purpose) hospitalized by the collapse from a theatre fly-tower of “the entire set of the Importance of Being Earnest” .

That the fifth will indignantly reappear is increasingly likely (nice use of the echo-plate here). The others proceed, entertainingly deploying in a witty set their mass of domestic and DIY equipmen. There is sexual tension between one pair and respective mourning / resentment for dePfeffel by the other.

 

There was a point when it lagged a bit, 45 minutes in, but a fine coup de theatre with Scrooge’s third ghost turns it around, and the ripples and barks of laughter start up again as it accelerates. All power to Michael Lumsden here… enuff said.

 

As a merciful 75-minute, £ 18.50 break from the maelstrom of London Christmas shopping, it is good value.

 

 

box office http://christmascarollondon.com 03333 444167
Weds-Sun at 3.30 pm till the 30th, 2pm on Christmas Eve

rating four  4 Meece Rating

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IMPERIUM Swan, Stratford upon Avon

CICERO, CAESAR, CATILINE: ELOQUENCE, AMBITION , HORROR

 

 

It begins with a corpse: a horrid human-sacrifice, as we shall learn, as a set of libertines and plotters swear a blood-oath to kill the Consul Cicero. From there the play roams on, thrilling and tense, subtle and shocking and thoughtful. Oh, the sadness of being born fifty years too soon! When I limped gloomily to a D in the Roman History A level it was because that vivid world – precursor and founder of our own civilization – had been rendered unbearably distant and dry by awful textbooks and a dreary teacher. How were we oppressed schoolgirls to know how thrilling it was? Power struggles, shifting alliances, spurts of dishonest populism by wannabe tyrants, class hostility: a perfect preparation for modern politics, with added bloody rebellion and hideous horror-story deeds. If I had seen this then, I might be a classicist now.

 

 
Mike Poulton, who made such a stunning job of Wolf Hall, has adapted Robert Harris’ magisterial novels based on the career and vast writings of Cicero (a vital player, political republican hero and orator, who gets only a few lines in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.) Gregory Doran directs with typical pace and his trademark clarity : as with his productions of Shakespeare history plays, never does your mind wander for a second while you worry which Gaius is which, or which side he is (for the moment) backing. Richard McCabe as Cicero is a marvellous creation: a man risen from lowly beginnings through sheer intelligence and lawyerly eloquence, his genuine belief in the Republic and horror of autocracy fading sometimes endearingly into pomposity; his political gift for expediency always at war with his real principles. It is a masterclass in the running dilemma that is politics, and a credible, poignant human portrait.

 

 

 

Often our sophisticated Cicero is confronted with harsh simplicities of greed and ambition, equally often physically overshadowed. Sometimes by the terrifying brute Catiline (Joe Dixon, making me think of a Marvel Comics super-villain, in a good way ). Sometimes our hero seems staid next to the watchful, sexy young Julius Caesar (Peter de Jersey, one of those faces you can’t take your eyes off). The device of using the amiable, keen slave-secretary Tiro (Joseph Kloska) as narrator is entertaining, and again serves that clarity of plot beautifully. The women in the story are few, but make a forceful mark: Siobhan Redmond as Cicero’s rich and barely tolerant wife, a sweet Jade Croot as his daughter, and not least the very foxy Eloise Secker as Clodia, sister and incestuous lover of Clodius, the dandyish young aristocrat who renounces his status to be a Tribune of the Plebs , with pleasing echoes of Wedgwood Benn binning his peerage.

 

 

 

There are six parts, in two sessions (what great television it would make, if TV companies had the cojones!). The first three- CONSPIRATOR – I saw: the second set, DICTATOR , not yet. A hideous weather forecast and four-hour drive home in freezing fog made it unsafe to stay. But the quality, my closer-dwelling companion assures me, is the same: a touch darker, more menacing. Cicero struggles to regain influence and stay alive with his family , and a very different view of Caesar’s rule and death emerges, unlike Shakespeare’s. And comes then Mark Antony , the triumvirate and the dark time after…
I shall buy tickets later and watch both in a day, repeating the first part with pleasure. And I apologize to theatrecat readers for not having both at my fingertips now. But can promise, either way, a sharpening, intelligent, theatrically irresistible experience.

 

 

box office rsc.org.uk 01789 403493 to 10 feb
rating five  5 Meece Rating

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