Monthly Archives: January 2018

JULIUS CAESAR Bridge Theatre, SE1

AVE HYTNER IMPERATOR!    THE BRIDGE AS ARENA

 

 

Before the start, singing along with Eye of the Tiger in the melée and enjoying the red flags, baseball hats and beercans,  we of the 1968 generation felt  quite at home in the standing pit crowd: half gig, half demo, Glasto meets Grosvenor Square, been there before.

 

But, ringed by the balconies of more conventional seats in this new and thrillingly flexible theatre , this is a Caesar for today.   Nicholas Hytner, with pace and humour and a most dramatic immersive design by Bunny Christie, throws it all at Shakespeare’s timeless cautionary tale. Tyrants, beware conspirators: conspirators, beware that out of the chaos you create may rise another tyranny.   Julius Caesar is becoming godlike sole ruler of a newly unstable republic. The assassins who see that this must end are envious and resentful, not all their motives pure: they need to recruit the thoughtful , liberal Brutus. So they do, and in their moment of bloody  achievement the demagogue Mark Antony – in that most artful of speeches to friends, Romans, and countrymen – makes himself the heir, swaying the crowd with sentimental grief for dead Caesar and headshakingly offering that fatal line of  faint praise – “but Brutus is an honourable man… “ . And soon the elected senators are butchered and a new regime rises, whose name is not freedom.

 

Hytner, who over  a decade ago gave us a Henry V for the Iraq war age, has pointed up the current  parallels – populism, fake news, regime changes  – and gleefully  refashioned his new theatre to allow some 200 of us, on foot in the pit, to represent the Roman mob. In the starry hot-ticket  scramble for the first night I decided quietly to buy a 25 quid ticket to eschew seating and get down with the kids (and a few of my own age, some of us visibly creaking at the knees) It was worth it. You’ll have a grand night in a seat, for it is a classy production . Ben Whishaw is a marvellous cerebral, bookish worried liberal Brutus, David Morrissey a striding, masterful Antony,  and every other part is drawn with gorgeous, often funny delicacy. Notably Michelle Fairley’s  earnestly focused Cassius (gender changes work well, after all women do politics too) and Adjoa Andoh  as a smoothly humorous, elegantly camp Casca: a sort of female Roman Peter Mandelson. Not a word falls flat, not a scene drags.

 

 

And wow, the action! Down in the pit you don’t stand still: the crowd moves, has to reshape, change mood from celebration to fear to confusion, cower.  The raised floor proves to be studded with baffling platform sections rising and falling in new conficurations as scenes change,  so that eventually a real sense of national upheaval takes you over. You’re helpless, sometimes thrillingly near the action sometimes jostled far back, glad of the occasional chest-level sill to lean on before it suddenly sinks away and another rises behind you , and unbelievably well-drilled stage management hands and voices get you moving back, sideways, out of the way, quick, here come the soldiers, here comes Caesar, quic.k… And the world is rebuilt round you, sometimes in near darkness.  Promenade performances can be both boring and  hell on the feet, but two hours flashed by in anxious tense  silences, rousing speeches, eavesdropping on conspiracy , fleeing through the smoke of battle.
 

So at last, as I brushed the last of the falling ash from my hair and staggered out past the barbed wire, barricades and ammo  boxes  of noble  Brutus’ final battle,   I felt smugly   sorry for the poor static comfy lumps  in the balconies, glorious though their view no doubt was.  We got to cheer Caesar, crouch in terror at the gunshots,  suddenly find our noses two feet from Morrissey’s  brogues as he cast aside his microphone and spoke from the cunning heart of Antony. I nearly got caught up in the dismemberment of poor Cinna the poet, too   ,As  Henry V  would put it, gentlemen in posh seats up aloft should think themselves  accursed they were not here, to mob with us upon the Ides of March. And travel, delighted and warned, through the urgency and desperation of every era’s upheavals.

 

. Box office: 0843-208 1846. to 15 april Broadcast in cinemas on NT Live on 22 March
rating: five  5 Meece Rating
And here is the rare Stage Management Mouse for the guys who kept us on the move…

Stage Management Mouse resizedSet Design Mouse resizedand a design mouse for Bunny Christie.

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JULIUS CAESAR Bridge Theatre, SE1

AVE HYTNER IMPERATOR!    THE BRIDGE AS ARENA

 

 

Before the start, singing along with Eye of the Tiger in the melée and enjoying the red flags, baseball hats and beercans,  we of the 1968 generation felt  quite at home in the standing pit crowd: half gig, half demo, Glasto meets Grosvenor Square, been there before.

 

But, ringed by the balconies of more conventional seats in this new and thrillingly flexible theatre , this is a Caesar for today.   Nicholas Hytner, with pace and humour and a most dramatic immersive design by Bunny Christie, throws it all at Shakespeare’s timeless cautionary tale. Tyrants, beware conspirators: conspirators, beware that out of the chaos you create may rise another tyranny.   Julius Caesar is becoming godlike sole ruler of a newly unstable republic. The assassins who see that this must end are envious and resentful, not all their motives pure: they need to recruit the thoughtful , liberal Brutus. So they do, and in their moment of bloody  achievement the demagogue Mark Antony – in that most artful of speeches to friends, Romans, and countrymen – makes himself the heir, swaying the crowd with sentimental grief for dead Caesar and headshakingly offering that fatal line of  faint praise – “but Brutus is an honourable man… “ . And soon the elected senators are butchered and a new regime rises, whose name is not freedom.

 

 

Hytner, who over  a decade ago gave us a Henry V for the Iraq war age, has pointed up the current  parallels – populism, fake news, regime changes  – and gleefully  refashioned his new theatre to allow some 400 of us, on foot in the pit, to represent the Roman mob. In the starry hot-ticket  scramble for the first night I decided quietly to buy a 25 quid ticket to eschew seating and get down with the kids (and a few of my own age, some of us visibly creaking at the knees) It was worth it. You’ll have a grand night in a seat, for it is a classy production . Ben Whishaw is a marvellous cerebral, bookish worried liberal Brutus, David Morrissey a striding, masterful Antony,  and every other part is drawn with gorgeous, often funny delicacy. Notably Michelle Fairley’s  earnestly focused Cassius (gender changes work well, after all women do politics too) and Adjoa Andoh  as a smoothly humorous, elegantly camp Casca: a sort of female Roman Peter Mandelson. Not a word falls flat, not a scene drags.

 

 

And wow, the action! Down in the pit you don’t stand still: the crowd moves, has to reshape, change mood from celebration to fear to confusion, cower.  The raised floor proves to be studded with baffling platform sections rising and falling in new conficurations as scenes change,  so that eventually a real sense of national upheaval takes you over. You’re helpless, sometimes thrillingly near the action sometimes jostled far back, glad of the occasional chest-level sill to lean on before it suddenly sinks away and another rises behind you , and unbelievably well-drilled stage management hands and voices get you moving back, sideways, out of the way, quick, here come the soldiers, here comes Caesar, quic.k… And the world is rebuilt round you, sometimes in near darkness.  Promenade performances can be both boring and  hell on the feet, but two hours flashed by in anxious tense  silences, rousing speeches, eavesdropping on conspiracy , fleeing through the smoke of battle.

 

 

So at last, as I brushed the last of the falling ash from my hair and staggered out past the barbed wire, barricades and ammo  boxes  of noble  Brutus’ final battle,   I felt smugly   sorry for the poor static comfy lumps  in the balconies, glorious though their view no doubt was.  We got to cheer Caesar, crouch in terror at the gunshots,  suddenly find our noses two feet from Morrissey’s  brogues as he cast aside his microphone and spoke from the cunning heart of Antony. I nearly got caught up in the dismemberment of poor Cinna the poet, too   ,As  Henry V  would put it, gentlemen in posh seats up aloft should think themselves  accursed they were not here, to mob with us upon the Ides of March. And travel, delighted and warned, through the urgency and desperation of every era’s upheavals.

 

. Box office: 0843-208 1846. to 15 april Broadcast in cinemas on NT Live on 22 March
rating: five  5 Meece Rating
And here is the rare Stage Management Mouse for the guys who kept us on the move…

Stage Management Mouse resizedSet Design Mouse resizedand a design mouse for Bunny Christie.

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MARY STUART Duke of York’s, WC2

TWO QUEENS, TWO FATES

 

Who shall be whom? In Robert Icke’s arresting adaptation of Schiller’s play, the scene opens with a sober-suited group of men watching two women in identical black velvet suits and white shirts, while a coin is spun to see which will be Queen Elizabeth I, which her third-cousin Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots and rival for the throne. One is Juliet Stevenson, one Lia Williams. They know no more than we do; they will obey the coin.

 

 

It is more than a gimmick, though you do catch your breath at the audacity and expertise of the actors, each knowing every heartbeat of the other’s part and prepared to play it. It sets the theme which Icke picks out of the play: the fact that both women are trapped. Mary is imprisoned at Fotheringhay, accused and convicted – dubiously – of fomenting Catholic uprisings against Henry VIII’s daughter the Queen. Elizabeth is unwillingly engaged in marital negotiations with the French prince, and tainted by accusations of bastardy after her mother was executed and her father disowned her. She must decide whether to sign the death warrant of a kinswoman, or risk Mary continuing as a martyred focus for revolt and assassination. Around the two women – who only meet once, with electric tension, in the third act of five – there swirl arguing, cajoling, threatening, sometimes treacherous courtiers. Only in the gentle last moments of Mary does the stage fill with women, her ladies returned to her at last.

 

 

On the night I went, Juliet Stevenson was the Protestant Queen, Lia Williams Mary. It felt in their first scenes entirely right: Stevenson a sharp commanding figure and Williams more vulnerable, softer. But those who have seen it both ways round assure me that this is right too: indeed gradually a vulnerability in Elizabeth and bursts of spitting passionate fury in Mary narrow the gap: each can fight and scorn, each can be brought low by doubt and the need for love. And each, spectacularly, is wooed by the sexy, unnervingly convincing Leicester (John Light) whose real loyalties remain a touch obscure. Each too is trusted by the impassioned Mortimer (Rudi Dharmalingam) who is fanatically of the Catholic party.

 

 

It is political dynamite, emotional and cerebral catnip. Icke’s text – his own translation, in loose verse – is rather wonderful, unobtrusively poetic but with the iambic thrust and energy which drives and heightens otherwise straightforward argument and emotion. Only passingly does he seek ‘poetic’ diction: more of it is as straight as Elizabeth’s cry “I don’t like wisdom when it’s smeared with blood!” as she listens to Elliot Levey’ s marvellously smooth Burleigh, the ultimate politician, advocating a quick kill (the phrase “never trust a Cecil” seems to have echoed down centuries since).

 

It is consistently exciting, whether in the court circle or in the cell with Mary ; the set is simple, the curved brick back wall of the Almeida where it began is reproduced with just a revolve enabling several outbreaks of catlike, furious circling and a final coup de theatre with Elizabeth’s transformation into the terrifying portrait of her later years. The evening’s tone throughout is – in the best possible way – on a note of sustained political and fanatical hysteria, rarely and barely suppressed.
So, quite often, is your breath.

 

box office 0844 871 7627 http://www.atgtickets.com to 31 March
rating four  4 Meece Rating

 

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LADY WINDERMERE’S FAN Vaudeville, WC2

A WILDE RIDE WITH A BOLTER

 

 

Beneath the artful fan-shapes of the set, gloriously coloured bustles and ruffles flit between black tailcoats and epigrams ping around the room like flicked rubber-bands. The real delight, though, is in the detail: as the Oscar Wilde season rolls elegantly on it is Kathy Burke’s mischievous, witty direction (and wise pruning of some overlong Wilde persiflage) which brings this tale back to life. There’s a wonderful fleeting portrait gag, a priceless unexpected hereditary snort, once a cheeky glimpse of homoerotic flirtation almost out of sight on the terrace and a cherishable entr’acte music-hall number which Burke has lovingly written for Jennifer Saunders’ matriarchal monster . In which Ami Metcalfe in a maid’s outfit doing percussion offers the most suggestive deployment of a triangle yet seen in the West End.

 

 

It is fun, for all the melodramatic seriousness of the tale, and Wilde’s banked-down fury at the hypocrisy of his time. The lightness of touch keeps a modern audience enchanted, and enables us to suspend mere gawps of absurdity at the Edwardian concepts of female “ruin” (caught visiting a Man!) and the need for a once-fallen woman to claw her way back into the “society” of the frankly idle rich. Tiresomely virtuous young Lady Windermere (Grace Molony) sees everything in black and white and is made suspicious of her husband’s calls on the elegantly cougarish Mrs Erlynne, little suspecting that the lady is in fact the mother she had presumed dead but who was in fact that shocking thing, a bolter. Lord W – a nicely geeky Joshua James – is actually trying to save his wife from this fearful knowledge.

 
But it is Mrs E herself who, at the expense of her own social and economic ambitions, saves the naive young woman from repeating her error and running off with one of WIlde’s identikit, epigrammatic young lordlings. Who are, by the way, in the late night all-men scene, hilarious.

 

Key to the play’s success is of course the fallen woman, and Samantha Spiro is as magnetic as ever: sometimes brittle, a knowing cynic who has dyed her hair and made the best of her disgrace, sometimes defensive, but in the big, desperate scene with her daughter lets it all fall away from her to reveal naked, passionate self-sacrificing honesty. Her plea for the silly girl to go back to her baby silences the theatre. And one perhaps remembers that Wilde had a wife and children, and was to suffer the loss of them.

 

http://www.nimaxtheatres.com to 7 April

RATING   four  4 Meece Rating

 

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BEGINNING Ambassadors, WC2

CLAMBERING TOWARDS LOVE

 

 

You don’t often, in romances, get lines like “Tomato ketchup’s always been my Achilles heel”. Or indeed proper consideration being given to the erotic potential of fish finger sandwiches. David Eldridge’s 100-minute two-hander won plaudits at the National (Luke Jones’ delight recorded here, https://theatrecat.com/tag/beginning/ ) and everyone had positive awe for Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton . But I was curious to see whether the messy, utterly naturalistic intimacy directed by Polly Findlay in the Dorfman would survive transplantation to even this tiniest of West End proscenium
houses.

 

 

It does. In the back stalls under the overhang you certainly lose a few muttered lines, but not many. And the fascination of the real-time unfolding of a relationship holds you, as the tipsy, clumsy, lonely pair navigate the aftermath of Laura’s flat-warming party, cooling and warming (“I love a Scotch eggs!” “So do I!”) as they gradually reveal themselves and, as Danny puts it “clamber towards one another” as new lovers must. Especially new lovers a bit battered by life and failure.

 

Troughton as the Essex divorcé, living with his Mum and his Nan and mourning for his marriage and distant child is remarkably skilled : not least at looking – until the end – a lot less attractive than he actually is, which is great acting. A hopeless lump , you think sometimes, why would this pretty woman want him, even if she is 38 and a bit desperate for a baby? Mitchell in turn displays sometimes a brittle professional-woman sophistication and sometimes a howling, alarming neediness. The sexual politics of the evening are nicely reversed from the frequent cliché, with her the predator demanding sex and him more able to unfold his simple need for warmth, hugs, connection, family.

 

 

There are some huge laughs, brilliantly evoked by the physical clumsiness, the Dad-dancing from him and exaggerated bop from her at the slightly awful playlist from the party. And often too at his helpless, honest blokey bathos when she soars off into rom-com fantasy. And rarely has there been a more honest erotic exchange than – following each one’s admission tha tthey don’t do cocaine – “I’d go a Ginsters with you” “I”d go a Ginsters with you too”. Beautiful.

 

box office Phone: 020 7395 5405 to 24 March
rating four    4 Meece Rating

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WOMAN BEFORE A GLASS Jermyn St theatre

PEGGY GUGGENHEIM WALKS AGAIN

 

 

You cross the stage floor to the toilets and a warning sign on the little set alerts you to the danger of tripping over a “solid stone” bench. So I tapped it, expecting polystyrene or MDF but no – solid. Apparently it was hell getting it down the narrow stairs. Quite right though: nothing but quality has a place in the classy whiteness of Erika Rodriguez’ set for this evocation of Peggy Guggenheim’s life, art collection and robust attitudes. And when Judy Rosenblatt prowls onto the stage to dump on it an armful of posh frocks and reminisce (“I danced all night with Duchamp in this” etc), the dresses are pretty classy too. Director Austin Pendleton and – even more deservingly – writer Lanie Robertson won plaudits for this one-woman show in the US, and it is a feather in the cap of the little Jermyn to bring it here. Try not to miss it. Really, I mean it..

 

 

Rosenblatt – chirpy, confidential, demanding – catches precisely the masterful and irritable energy of the woman who – wealthy, but from “millionaire not billionaire” branch of the family – almost singlehandedly supported, bought, promoted and championed the most important art of the mid-2oth century. Drawing from interviews and her own writings, Robertson has picked out the anecdotes, the boasts, the tragedies and the vital moments of insight and woven them into something moving, arresting, often very funny. It was, she says, one of her lovers Samuel Beckett who told her – a Renaissance-lover – to collect and pay attention to the art of her own time, Europe’s turbulent years, and to support those who expressed it. There was beauty too in her adoption of Venice, where the astonishing collection is now safe in her little palazzo under the aegis of her (often heavily disparaged ) “ugly uncle” Guggenheim in America, The melding of old aestheic sensitivities and the shockingly new is what makes visiting it so marvellous. I nearly booked another flight to Venice in the train going home, so passionately did she evoke the marvels of Kandinsky, Picasso, Pollock, Rothko, Giacometti and the rest.

 

 

But it is entertaining too, as she shrugs through anecdotes about great figures of the century, whether dancing the night away with her, accepting bungs of money to get on making art painting, or in one case being exasperatingly holed up “in the spare room with a couple of Russian soldiers”. Her hopes and sorrows and admiration for her artist daughter Pegeen – and Pegeen’s sad end – are handled with finesse and real feeling; her passion for colour, form, soul and honesty in all art forms is infectious, her blasts of spite at her uncle’s “Tyrolean bitch” enchanting. The description – never laboured – of how close she came to being rounded up by Nazi soldiers as a “Juive” while on her way to flee through the Med with the precious “decadent” artworks is superb. “Je suis Americaine!” she spat, and they backed off.

 

It came alive, every minute of it. A tremendous performance, a jewel.

http://www.jermystreetheatre.co.uk to 3 Feb
rating five  5 Meece Rating

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A PASSAGE TO INDIA Royal, Northampton and touring

SULTRY HEAT AND SEXUAL DREAD…

 

 

Our age is beginning, once more, to appreciate E.M.Forster properly: the recent TV Howards’s End caught his wit as well as the social indignation and melancholy, and allowed something of the philosophical-mystical oddity of the man and his dream of “only connect”. This adaptation by Simon Dormandy – who co-directs with Sebastian Armesto – takes his strange, angry, yearningly reconciliatory story about the Raj in its pomp in 1910, with white colonialists and Indians woefully disconnected, and treats it with intelligent care and interesting theatrics.

 

 

I remembered the book mostly for the central event – English Adela wrongly accusing Dr Aziz of molesting her in the Marabar caves, rousing both communities to fury and only recanting at the trial. So I expected the satirical disgust at Anglo-Indian prejudice and the weird sexual dread which – as I remember from a few childhood years in apartheid South Africa – fuels a lot of racism. We get that: the prim policeman McBride averring that “The darker races are physically attracted to the lighter. It’s a scientific fact”. We get the harrumphing voices at the Club, Mrs Callendar saying “Call in the army! Flog the bastards!”, and the stiff fretful young magistrate realizing that Adela’s passion for “the real India” would not be suitable in his future memsahib. We get, also a copybook example of prosecutorial indignation trying to shore up a recovered false memory of abuse. Very topical.

 

 

But I had somehow forgotten, and since have re-read, the religious, mystical strangeness of the book. This is what Dormandy and Armesto arrestingly express by having the ensemble cast open the play by chorally quoting Walt Whitman’s poem of the same title , about “God’s purpose” being to bring all races together. Old Mrs Moore, philosophically aged, first meets Aziz in a mosque, sharing his sense of God. Yet near her end – Liz Crowther quite terrifyingly expressing this – the old woman loses God and her only-connecting beliefs , in a breakdown triggered by the terrifying blank inexpressive “Boom!” echo in the caves, which also disastrously throw Adela into hallucinating panic.

 

 

So the play, like the book, expresses this deep ancient dread of emptiness, meaninglesness: a spiteful pointless universe only alleviated by the wacky irrationality of the final Hindu ceremonies of Krishna’s birth. This production expresses it by creating, alongside the prosaic club and court and tea-party scenes, a sense of otherness: giving that “boom!” sound with voices and breaking into moments of ritual movement, a dim-lit ensemble creating the cave-doors and boats and river with heavy staves. Strong choreography and Kuljit Bhamra’s moody score (the live music onstage was from Meera Raja on press night) make it work. Phoebe Pryce gives us a good Adela in her earnest tripperish naiveté and rising, sexually charged distress: Asif Khan is a fascinating Aziz, initially burbling in cartoonish, nervous-to-please ‘babu’ style, his Muslim purity irritated by “Hindus, so sloppy!”, but after the accusation growing in rage, rejecting white friendship from Richard Goulding’s liberal Fielding, then reaching final reconciliation only in the dreamlike scenes which end it.

 

 

I left more moved than I expected, reflecting on Forster’s redemptive dream and how far we have and haven’t come. But also noting how the heat and feverish colour of India can turn some from the white race to mysticism, some to nervous arrogant pomposity, some to terrified sexual dread. All of which still happen..

 

 

box office 01604 624811. to 20 Jan
touring Salisbury , Bristol, Liverpool, Bromley
Reaches Park Theatre London, 20 Feb.    Touring Mouse wide
rating four

4 Meece Rating

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GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY – revisited Noel Coward Theatre

My principal review from the Old Vic is here (http://tinyurl.com/y8u2na24) . But now it transfers (with glorious irony to the Noel Coward Theatre..it’s the least Cowardy of all plays ever).

So I see it for the third time (the second, I booked a ticket of my own on the way home from press night. The fourth will be in March, as I did the same last night…).

A few brief observations.

I had not given enough weight to the  important anchoring performance of Ciaran Hinds as Nick, the landlord:  a beautifully understated, self-effacing lead.

 

There is something profoundly moving too in what McPherson has done with the democratic sharing of limelight and songs, a device sweetly in tune with the play’s broad understanding and compassion for all the characters: the weak, the criminal, the mentally disabled, the desperate .

 

The brilliance of Simon Hale’s  score of arrangements is more remarkable every time you hear it;  and  the clever thing is that  that taking Dylan’s music out of his lifetime and into America’s harshest Depression years smooths away any 1960s self indulgence and shallowness of young love,  and takes the lyrics deeper than ever .    The 1978 “Is your love in vain?” , after the love and loss and guilt of the xx family almost unbearable, and as for Forever young.. an audacity of compassion almost unbearable.

 

The ensemble remarkable as before: Sheila Atim has been Cumbered with praise rightly but for me Shirley Henderson expressing in every move the dementia and disinhibition of Elizabeth, and suddenly emerging through it into great anthems from the primal depth of emotion and perception, is dazzling. But bloody hell, they all are. I have seen it three times,  and have bought a high balcony ticket to go again before it ends. For my soul’s sake.

 

http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk      to 24 March

5 Meece Rating

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THE LADYKILLERS OF HUMBER DOUCY LANE Woodbridge & touring

VILLAIN VAUDEVILLE 

 

 

Everyone loves the film. Something in the nostalgic British psyche likes to think of a gang of ruthless desperadoes lodging with a dear old lady, pretending to be a chamber music quartet, but being foiled by her innocence and their own incompetence. It was a jewel of Ealing cinema and then a wonderful stage adaptation, and now Eastern Angles home in on it, in their Christmassy panto spirit, with their own spoofy account of a similar old lady, Binkie, and her boarding-house in a quiet Ipswich lane (it’ll be a side street in Peterborough when they move it there).

 

This time, to enable in-jokes about actors, theatre production finances and crazy headgear, the villains have broken out of Norwich jail and their plan is to put on The Importance of Being Earnest, lure in the whole street and nip out to burgle their empty houses during brief periods offstage. A cast of five is valiantly gender-blind (Emma Barclay doubles as Binkie and as CowCrusher the heavy, and Keshini MIsha is Chugger). And, for a lot of the time, they’re very funny. Especially Daniel Copeland as the dimmest, beardiest of them . His veteran drop-dead timing provides the best laughs of the show. Especially when he plays Gwendolen and rather likes it. And it’s quite funny when he plays the flute too, in the musical numbers, because a big bearded heavy with a sweet piping flute always is.

 

 

Which is, I fear, a bit more  drawn-out than it need be. Laura Keefe’s direction is full of good gags, not least the meta-theatre moments when they use us as the gullible audience, and Barclay’s turn as Binkie , full of local jokes (again, they’ll adapt them for Peterborough) is fun (“This is Rushmere Community Centre, where I first performed the Downward Dog”) . I loved the music, especially the robbery song, and more of that and less of the slower jokes would help. But, as so often, the spirit of place and the general glee the Angles’ Christmas show carries it through. Even into this filthy January.

 

 

box office easternangles.co.uk to 27 Jan
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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THE TRANSPORTS Union Chapel & Touring

Touring Mouse wideTOP FOLK ON THE ROAD 

 

There are boxes , planks, a rope; around and upon them, singly and severally, still or moving, the aristocracy of modern folk music. Strings, accordion, guitars, oboe; voices hard and clear, powerful and determined, channeling timeless emotion.    Theatrecat wouldn’t usually do gigs, concerts, even opera. But this brief January tour is so remarkable, so theatrical In the power of its storytelling , that unless you have a real antipathy to folk you should know about it.

 

Besides, it comes apropos on top of that grander chronicle of the late 18c , Hamilton: because it was after the American colonies had broken free, and because they were not short  of slave labour, that our penal system resorted to the more distant transportation whose story inspires Peter Bellamy’s majestic song-cycle. The First Fleet took thousands of convicts thousands of miles to Botany Bay and founded white Australia (the narrator does make, in passing, the point that in effect we stole it from the aboriginal peoples).

 

 

Anyway, on the 40th anniversary of Bellamy’s creation, with prisons full again and our own world’s refugees crossing dark water to make new lives, arranger Paul Sartin and Matthew Crampton, who has written about refugee peoples, felt it the moment to revive it.   The Refugee Council (www.refugeecouncil.org.uk) has a stand at every performance, and an extra song about the drownings in the eastern Mediterranean by Sean Cooney is added to the original. But it’s the tre historical tale that thrills, and brings together a unique stageful of folk musicians and voices : The Young ‘uns, Nancy Kerr, Greg Russell, Rachael McShane, Faustus. Crampton narrates, Tim Dalling directs.

 

 

Told with authoritative passion, the tale is a true and remarkable one, from my own bleak East Anglian fields  at a time of agricultural poverty it moves to to Norwich Jail, where young Henry Cable meets Susannah Holmes, both reprieved from the noose for theft. Allowed cohabitation but not marriage in the harsh jail they bear a child; but Susannah is taken for transportation to found the colony at Botany Bay. An extraordinary series of events around her embarkation – a separation, a baby saved by unlikely heroism, an ambush of the Home Secretary at his own table – are so well told that I will not in is context spoil it for newcomers.

 

 

In performance it is remarkable: building , mesmerising, Bellamy’s deliberately naif folk rhymes and choruses sometimes rising to poetry but always direct: your nape prickles when Nancy Kerr as the mother who loses her man to the hangman and her son to transport sings . “The leaves in the woodland and the gulls on the shore, cry “you never will walk with your menfolk no more””. There are plaintive songs, but sharp satirical moments as the astonishing Rachael McShane scorns the life of a serving-maid, and lively moments in the Robber’s song and the storming Plymouth Mail on its mission of mercy. The farewell to England brings the whole company together. The great room shakes with it. Can’t stop listening to the album…

 

http://thetransportsproduction.co.uk/tour On tour till 24 January. Final show, Norwich, where it began…
rating  FIVE  5 Meece Rating

 

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RITA, SUE AND BOB TOO Royal Court SW1

GIRLS ON THE EDGE

 

Honour to the Royal Court for two things. First for the initial wobble, then  for executing a rapid u-turn over Andrea Dunbar’ s rather wonderful play . So after all it completes its tour, as planned , by returning to the theatre where under Max Stafford Clark it first opened in 1982. That made, with sad brevity, a star of the 19 year old Bradford author – “a genius from the slums” someone wrote – and it stands firm in the Court’s tradition of making Britain look itself squarely in the face.

 

 

The initial panicky cancellation was understandable. Not only because  Stafford Clark of its parent company Out of Joint is now being accused of sexual misconduct (he left the production at the start of the rehearsal period) but for a subtler reason: the present-day common rhetoric paints all underage and exploited girls as purely victims, frozen and terrified – or drugged and bullied like the Rochdale and other grooming gang victims. Here, the uncompromising honesty of the author rather blows the doors off that, showing us something more complex. Another way it can be. Dunbar knew of what she wrote: pregnant at 15, her child stillborn , she bore another In her teens and two more, spent time in a women’s refuge, and died a heavy drinker at only 29.

 

 

But what a flare, what a shooting-star she was .  Her voice is that of women not only poor but very young, caught in a doldrum of social change and poverty but not pathetic, not cowed, nor burdened with adult commonsense . She does not underrate her protagonists’ excitement, animal energy and touching hopeless ambition for life and love.  The two  15 year old babysitters who have it off in turn in the car – or anywhere they can – with the bored husband and father Bob , twelve years their senior, are certainly being exploited. But they are also very much up for it in the , first eyewateringly explicit scene in the car (simple onstage chairs, it’s nicely stark with a hilltop Bradford backdrop). Rarely is the banal absurdity of congress so unflinchingly shown as in Kate Wasserberg’s production) . Rita and Sue continue as prime movers in the liaison, keen as mustard, unafraid, undrugged, funny and raunchy.

 

 

Of course the situation falls to pieces – with a delicacy of understanding and compassion which makes you weep again that Dunbar died young and. Of course the pain of Bob’s wife is real, and the girls’ final estrangement harder on one than the other; but in the centre of the  story, when the trio chase one another playfully round the theatre and collapse snuggled a trois on their hilltop , breathless and laughing, there is a real sense of fondness and fun. People can show spirit in the face of their various bleaknesses.  Only a writer who has lived it can show that.

 

 

It is played with fast, funny, touching honesty by them all: the girls are terrific, both in their teenage mercilessness and their moments of awkwardness in the adult world for which they aren’t as ready for as they want to be. Taj Atwal is a skinny, ambitious, more thoughtful Rita, and Gemma Dobson Sue (a great professional debut) bossy and brash but helpless with her dreadful father and dotingly  defensive Mum (Sally Bankes as everyone’s toughYorkshire matriarch) . The dynamic between the girls – best mates, fleetingly jealous, sharing Bob with wonderfully dismaying matter-of-fact immodesty – is perfect.

 

 

Bob’s initial seduction, a mixture of teacherly sex-education and employerly authority (oh, that two quid tip, seven in today’s money! Cider and chips money!) gives way to a kind of imprisoment. Most incorrectly in modern terms , Dunbar makes us momentarily sorry for the man who has created a monster in these two demanding teenagers wanting ‘a jump” , just at the moment when he is getting on a bit better with his children’s mother. He’s in a trap too, a declining economy costing him both work and virility: James Atherton’s momentary sob of despair when he fears losing his car is more moving than any abuser of fifteen-year-olds has a right to be.

 

Oh, it’s clever. And funny. And every laugh rings with bittersweet truths about youth and disillusion, the hunger for fun and fondness, the dislocating and liberating and destructive and absurd power of sex. Without sentimentality or piety or correctness, it captures life. And the ending, an older woman and a young one and a couple of rueful drinks, is perfect. No wonder Dunbar was reportedly so furious when Alan Clarke’s 1987 movie messed up her ending and made it crass. This is the real thing.

 

box office 020 7565 5000 to 27 Jan

rating five   5 Meece Rating

 

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IMPERIUM – PART 2 AND REPRISE Swan, Stratford

AT LAST…AND FINE TO THE LAST

 

After snowbound frustration in December drove me onto the road after part I, I saw the first again and  that evening reached the second play in one of those epic, unforgettable two-show days. So I can report on the final act in Mike Poulton’s magnificent adaptation from Robert Harris’ novels about the republican orator Cicero. After the Catiline conspiracy comes the rise and fall of Julius Caesar and the ensuing conflicts and tragedies.

 

 

Either play stands alone – the first perhaps more easily than the second – but together the rich intelligence and lively wisdom of this political, intimate saga is to be treasured. My review of the first play’s three acts is here: https://theatrecat.com/tag/imperium/ – so I will not repeat it. There’s the corpse in the river, the masterclass in the running dilemma of power politics, the t human portrait of a great, flawed, unforgettable man and his times. The quality of Poulton’s neat sharp filleting and fast-flowing narrative endures into the second – again split into three acts – and so does the clarity and tone of Doran’s direction, always allowing lively absurdity to lie alongside the deepest tragedy. Modern echoes vibrate, especially about America: OK, Pompey’s Trump wig is a good jok, but more fascinating is the general reflection – as Senate and wannabe dictators clash – of how very Roman are the structures and concepts of US politics; a different shape from ours, descended firmly from monarchy and Church…

 

 

So now just some brief reflections on that second play, DICTATOR. At first we have a vaunting Caesar in gold and scarlet, a spectacular chariot crash, assassination, a chaotic and comedic political panic, some crashing oratory and a really excellent ghost. All within the first fifty minutes.

 

 

But as the tale continues, with dismay, conflict, and Cicero’s exile and return, there’s pleasure in the growth: Joseph Kloska, the slave and scribe (now a freeman) was an entertaining and likeable guide-narrator in Part 1 and here flowers into an assertive, alarmed adviser to the ageing Cicero in his last decade as he tries, rashly, to reclaim his influence and revive Republican democracy in the face of Joe Dixon’s immense, craggy, thuggish, and noisy Mark Antony ( not Shakespeare’s artful politician at all). Scenes between him and Cicero are stunning, his eruptions volcanic. The problem of populism, and of the swirl and murk of chaos which follows the death of tyrants, speaks as strongly to us as in the first part. But intensely too come the two parts of the Roman dream , sword and plough ; military glory and quiet, philosophical farm life with wine and olives by the sea, as the freed Tiro the scribe is taken from it, back into the fray with a reviving Cicero,

 

 

McCabe’s Cicero, ageing before our eyes, his old virtues and vanities warring within him as he returns to the political fray and ultimate defeat, is superb as before, his family’s fraying and sadness a counterpoint to his fluctuating, flatterable urge to return, his integrity steelier as death comes nearer. Fascinating in counterpoint is Oliver Johnstone as Octavian, the adopted heir of Caesar and only 19. At first he gives us a virtuous school-prefect, almost a Harry-Potter saviour, who gradually hardens into something quite different. And the staging, fluent and evocative, gives us a sense of the Roman mob: always a presence, unseen but heard, or running shouting in the shadows or rising through the great trapdoor to bay at the Capitol steps.
It does not end well for Cicero, or for ideals of liberty. And yet, this most intelligent epic booms down the centuries to us, a tribute to the power of the word and to faith in reason, however doomed.

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

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