Monthly Archives: February 2018

THE SHADOW FACTORY Nuffield City, Southampton

A CITY’S MEMORY

 

Two girls on the Downs in 1940 giggle over a spot of rabbit-poaching on Lady Cooper’s land. A roar, Junkers overhead. Figures emerge from smoke and darkness as a chanting urgent chorus,: “Over the river – Woolston way – Quick, this one’s for real , bolt the shutters, fill up the bath, fill up the sinks, water if there’s fire, change of clothes, candles, soap, photo album – Cos if..cos if…come the all-clear and your house has gone…”.

 

 

We read and reconstruct a lot about the London Blitz, but this Southampton story deserves telling too: Howard Brenton, a clear eye and eloquent historical storyteller, has immersed himself in the facts about it and found an imaginative intuition. The story of the Spitfires is itself extraordinary: in eight weeks of that year 489 planes were damaged, 785 lost; the Supermarine factory in Southampton was key, and they were constantly in production through the war years with constant improvements in design. When the factory was bombed – as happens at the start of this play – machine tools were saved and other trade premises in the city and beyond were requisitioned under draconian wartime rules. They built components to be assembled at Eastleigh: the fight continued.

 

 

Brenton has taken real characters – Beaverbrook, the bombastic newspaper-owner and minister for aircraft production, and the heroic works engineer Len Gooch – but imagined a family business as the heart of his story: a laundry. Avoiding the cliché of a brave united mustn’t-grumble wartime Britain, he acknowledges not only the steadfastness but the wobble, the anger, the fear, the resentment of government.

 
If there is a faultless wartime hero it is Daniel York’s Gooch; a heroine, Shala Nyx as a young woman thrilled and inspired by her design job at the factory. David Birrell’s laundry-owner Fred meanwhile is pessimistic, indignant at the requisition, hostile and defensive, afraid. His daughter Jackie (Lorna Fitzgerald) is embittered on losing her soldier lover and has to grope her way towards understanding and finding a role. HIs mother, made splendidly terrifying by Anita Dobson who doubles as the aristocratic chatelaine, is as tough an egg in her way as Hilton McRae’s swaggering Beaverbrook.

 

 

So the play does not echo that tone of compulsory their-finest-hour heartwarming which marked the patriotic films of the period (which in some ways it does resemble). The differences resolve, and Southampton was heroic in many ways; but the story has variety and bite and human failings. So under Samuel Hodges’ direction and Leo Warner’s inspired design, it takes off. I had to catch an early preview, but nothing faltered. Brenton allows his characters sharp poetry too: when the factory is bombed you need no pictures beyond Jackie’s gasped “The look of it – dust in the air – snakes, no not snakes, fire hoses… everywhere sopping wet…grey – shapes of things that are all wrong…and you see, but don’t see, lying in bricks half a person, no legs..”

 

 

It’s the first production in this new space, and what they have done is to set it on a vast thrust stage, blank as concrete, so that the community chorus can come and go and scenes change instantly; projections turn the floor into the grassy Common where terrified householders would “trek out” and camp during bombing raids, or into Whitehall, or the grand house with its carpets and long graceful windows which becomes the design studio and sees its mistress banished to the attics. Above the stage, moving light-bars become roofs high or low . And – spectacularly at last – turn into the graceful, miraculous, moving forms of aeroplane wings.
Oh, and there’s a good surprise at the end, in a sack.

 

box office nstheatres.co.uk to 3 march
rating four   4 Meece Rating

 

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LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT Wyndham’s, WC2

A WATCHFUL SORROW

 

 

There are some evenings when, as the cast take their bow with that half-relaxed half-smile, you are shocked: you feel you have not been watching a performance but witnessing a great human ordeal. Eugene O’Neill’s best play, a three-and-a-half hour fugue of unhappiness and love, is both exhausting and strangely invigorating. Maybe it is as simple as “they survived, so we can”. But more likely it is that in its acknowledgement of vast insoluble human pain, it becomes a hand reaching out across time to take yours. Whether you believe like the morphine-addled Mary that the Virgin Mary is still up there, or like her tubercular son Edmund that Nietzsche was right and God is dead, the point is that others have felt it all before you. And as Mary says “None of us can help the things life has done to us..”.

 

 

Lesley Manville, whose wrenching, delicately controlled pain scorched through Richard Eyre’s unforgettable production of Ibsen’s GHOSTS a while back, now shines in an extraordinary performance under the same director . The immense, intimate epic of addiction and love is set in Rob Howell’s blue-glass, skewed imagination of a summer house by the sea. She is in turns flirty, scared, angry, manic, cooing, sly, spiteful, querulous, loving, dangerous, excited, resentful: changing within seconds. She is the Tyrone family’s madonna, their fount of love, their toxic time-bomb: the eternal addict who is the enemy of ease because of what is (for a long time) not spoken of: the hypodermic, the stash upstairs.

 
The long day unfurls into nightmare from the initial family banter, breakfast-time prattling as if nothing was wrong except the patriarch’s snoring, Edmund’s “summer cold” and Jamie’s dissipation. But Eyre’s meticulous detailing shows the opening of cracks which will widen to chasms. Jeremy Irons is the retired actor, growlingly affectionate, exasperated by his sons then suddenly lovingly amused, pulling his beloved wife onto his lap. But he betrays an anxious need for control in sudden tidiness, picking up Jamie’s cup off the sofa and fussily plumping cushions. His Mary is too bright, to chatty for comfort; elder son Jamie is watchful, his brother Edmund aware of his own illness but being constantly pulled back to share in the observation of his mother. For after the bright hope of her return from the sanatorium, she is relapsing. Dare they believe it ? Jamie explicitly does; his father attempts denial. Through that first act the most telling (and truthful) detail is often just a stillness: anyone who has lived with an addict, a relapsing alcoholic, or self-harming depressive will recognize that nervous stillness: everyone watching, hoping this isn’t the bad thing back again, knowing it probably is.

 

 

Every one of them must find refuge: old Tyrone in memories of the great Shakespearian he thinks he might have been, Edmund in Swinburne and Schopenhauer and Ibsen (“filth and degenerates” says his father), Jamie in drinking and whoring. Every ordinary weakness is magnified by the central, demonic thing in their midst. The fog comes down, swirls beyond the glass walls. Back-story emerges: a nomadic theatrical life, bare hotel rooms and dirty trains, her babies born on the road, his near-miserly fear of poverty and absurd land deals, the baby who died, the doctor who hooked her on morphine when Edmund was newborn, the social gulf between the couple when they married. But as most of this comes through Mary’s rattling monologues and resentful mood-swings, you are never quite sure what to count.

 

 

Absurdity runs alongside the tragedy, horribly funny moments always a second away from a lethal shaft of pain. Later, when the morphine is openly spoken of, Manville’s prattling insistence that when Edmund is better and things are easier she will definitely beat it, Matthew Beard’s Edmund stares sideways out at us, hollow-eyed, defeated by her denial. When Rory Keenan’s Jamie comes home drunk and obscene, baiting a tipsy father and brother, it cannot be long before the restless footsteps upstairs bring the dreaded, loved mother into their midst, drifting farther away from them than ever. The poetry is in the pity. I have rarely seen anything more delicately, honestly, skilfully sorrowful.

 

http://www.wyndhamstheatre.co.uk to 7 april

RATING five 5 Meece Rating

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THE CULTURE – a farce in two acts Hull Truck

CELEBRATION FOR A CITY

 

Right place, right time, a last flurry of fireworks by the Humber. The hottest of young playwrights, James Graham, lovingly teases the city where he was a student : a place more joked-about than celebrated, but in an unexpectedly enthusiastic mood about itself. He reimagines and larkily mocks the end of its City of Culture year, as a manically overenthusiastic team prepares to hand the baton to Coventry the C of C for 2021.

 

 

It’s a great idea, and studded with good jokes both about Hull itself, the wackier events of the year, local authority ploddery and – principally – the absurdity of bureaucrats trying to evaluate the point of art through statistics and surveys. On one side big fat folders and prattle about outcomes and targetation, metrics, amalgamated workstreams and data-capture; on the other the kind of artist who pitches up with equally loopy jargon and a “Transportational Touch Exhibit” involving a blindfold , a caseful of objects and a chanted commentary through a distant microphone.

 

The inciting incident of the plot itself is the kind of modernism which brings  the aggrieved Dennis the sign-maker to turn up and accidentally disrupt the big day. He put an old fridge and sofa out for the Council refuse collectors, all correct, and it immediately got elected as an artwork, surrounded by keen art students and attracting respectful coachloads from Leeds.

 

 

All ll great stuff. And Andrew Dunn as Dennis is, as ever, a gem of grumpy, eloquent, dryly bluff blokeishness.  To get the idea, remember him as Tony in Dinnerladies on TV. Indeed quite often this play feels like James Graham channelling Victoria Wood: and once Ab-Fab too, as Janice the overkeen volunteer is played by Nicola Reynolds (in one of three fast-changing roles ) as pure Bubble.   So we’re rather at an angle from the familiar Graham of tightly researched, purposeful and beautifully structured recent-history plays – This House, Ink, Labour of Love. And he is not a natural farceur, though there are some intricate misunderstandings, crossed lines, redial-jokes and a lot of dashing about through doors.

 
It comes to life best when the people are more credible than merely comic: shrieking Janice is far too broad, and Amelia Donkor as Lizzie, the manic statistician who is trying to organize the handover and presentation is far too hectic.   There is no sense of how she really is, still less of how she ended up in Hull.   Mark Babych, otherwise directing with pace and farce-door ingenuity, would have done better to slow down her gabble-and-shriek, which  blurs into incomprehension some of Graham’s fine parodic jokes about her trade.

 

 

But the second half in particular is full of strong laughs, some nicely smutty, some manic, and many particularly fun for Hull people (I came with my husband, a former Radio Humberside man, who got them all).   Short cameo characters are great – especially Nicola Reynolds as a smugly self-assured DCMS minister, and Matt Sutton doubling as a furious Labour council chief in a red tie and a bored lawyer, who has a late artistic catharsis brought on by blue cake-icing (don’t ask). There are two nice phone events with local heroes Tom Courtenay and Maureen Lipman, and a nicely thrown-away reference to them both melting down in pique later.

 

 

Martin Hyder is terrific as both the baffled Coventry council chief (“I thought you just toss some cash to some artists and they do some art?”) and later as another volunteer, an ageing ex-deckie off the trawlers of long ago. He is glowing with pride at having done masterclasses in both CPR and LGBT “so I can both save lives and talk to gay people’. He gets, near the end, a moment of truth when he admits that as the year ends he’ll miss it, the sense of belonging that vanished when the fishing declined. Dunn too speaks for Hull’s pride and insecurity too, in the final moments. And it is in those moments that we’re back with the Graham we know, humane and perceptive.

 

So not one of his best plays, though the arguments about measuring art are sharp and useful. But at this moment, in this place, it’s a lovely thing. I’m glad to have been there.

 

hulltrucktheatre.org.uk to 17 February

rating three.  3 Meece Rating

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ROTHSCHILD & SONS Park, NW11

BANKERS AS LIBERATORS 

 

 

The first recitative line in this one-act musical, as the little band sounds curfew, is chilling: a Town Crier from the 1760’s :
“Jews and aliens of Frankfurt. Return to your homes. The Ghetto is closed”.
The shopkeeper Meyer Rothschild, yellow star on his sleeve, is baited by local oafs – “Jew, do your duty!” and made to bow. Officialdom cheats him of twelve krone. Returning to his affianced wife Gutele, he speaks ambition and dreams of sons who will “extend a man’s reach!” once the repressive laws controlling Jews allow them to marry. He resolves to build wealth, brushing off the Biblical camel-and-needles’s-eye rule with “when you’re rich enough, you find tiny camels and enormous needles”.

 

It is one of the very few jokes in the show. Our hero, played by Robert Guccioli with vigorous charm turning gradually to patriarchal authority, strikes banking deals with incompetent courtiers in the kingdom of Hesse. Five sons are born, trained up and spread across European capitals to found the immense House of Rothschild. They are fawned on by desperate and prodigal governments in the Napoleonic Wars. Their unbreakable family network of information and prediction makes them unbeatable.

 

The one-act, two-hour musical is – with Sherman Yellen’s book – by Bock and Sheldon: who of course wrote Fiddler on the Roof, so gloriously played lately at Chichester with Omid Djalili . Some have expressed disappointment that Rothschild is no Tevye: rather than lovable, traditional and downtrodden, this time the hero is the diaspora Jew as winner. His sons take after him: black-suited, relentless, careful, riding the hard fact that their success and cleverness make them suspect and despised in their chosen nations. Leaflets on the “international Jewish conspiracy” are already circulating. But there’s a lovely, lightly choreographed, sequence when Gary Trainor as Nathan – the family hothead – is being watched by envious London Stock Market top-hats, trying to guess if the angle of his cigar or a gesture of his sleeve means ‘buy’ or “sell’ some commodity.

 

 

It is Nathan who first suggests that an offer to fund the Grand Alliance against Napoleon could persuade Britain to put pressure on the arrogant Metternich to abolish the ghetto laws across the Austrian Empire. It is a risk to everything they own ; after some conflict they all agree it, twice over, putting serious fiscal pressure on the brocaded , duplicitous Christian leader.

 

It may seem an odd moment for a paean to investment-banking and the way that giant fundholders can wield political influence. With nice irony, a few hours after I saw it I watched DRY POWDER (below) about another kind of banking altogether. On the other hand, with Hamilton in town, what better moment to portray pompous royals in brocade and periwigs being outwitted by clever, energetic nobodies from the wrong side of the tracks? And in an time of Holocaust memory and an uneasy sense of reanimated antisemitism, it does no harm to be reminded, from the age of Waterloo, of the troubled, talented, vigorous history of the Jewish diaspora in Europe.

 

And though the first third of the show is unaccountably slow, and some of the dealings with the Hesse court unengaging, when the father-son conflicts begin it gets peppery and satisfying. The songs improve too; especially “In my own LIfetime” and “Everything”. Cuccioli is tremendous, but so are Gary Trainor as Nathan and the other sons. Glory Crampton, though she is often just background, is moving and melodious when her moments do come. Like Cuccioli she is a personality who can fill far bigger stages than this . It isn’t one of the great musicals, but I left it feeling moved, and thoughtful, and a bit more educated about the diaspora’s journey.

 

 

box office 020 7870 6876 to 17 FEb
rating three.   3 Meece Rating

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DRY POWDER Hampstead NW3

YOU HAVE TO LAUGH OR YOU WOULD WEEP..

 

 

The most arresting new character I’ve met this year is the magnificent Hayley Atwell as Jenny; star of a New York private equity investment firm .  Jenny is a high-concept calculating machine-cum-psychopath, as staccato in her statements as the click of her spike heels. She deploys a superb blank does-not-compute’ stare when confronted with some concept like “relating to people”. Even her ruthless boss Rick (Aidan McArdle) is a bit more capable of worrying what people think. Slumped depressedly by his glass desk with his middle suit button defiantly and uncomfortably done up,  he is bothered that the firm’s latest manoeuvre  laid hundreds of workers off to turn a quick profit, and got exposed in the New York Times just as he was throwing a million-dollar engagement party.   Jenny scorns such weakness. “Do we work in- “ she drips with scorn at the words – “public relations? Anyway who takes the New York Times seriously?”
“The entire world” replies a colleague.
“I mean in OUR world!’ says Jenny.

 

 

Sarah Burgess’ slyly wicked comedy – she’s a rising US writer – is indeed a porthole into a murky parallel world whose doings , though legal, make McMafia look like Little Women. At least in that, the Russian tribes drip with tearful family loyalty even when commissioning car-bombs. Here, the privateers are driven entirely by the logic of percentage profit: they are piratical asset strippers, experts of the forked tongue and slippery promise.  Newcomers will give three minutes to the programme’s quick guide to leveraged buyouts, LPs, debt-to-capital ratios and the vital “Dry Powder” which a fund holds ready for a quick buy-in ; but in fact with skilful clarity Burgess makes the action clear from the start.

 

 

Rick is planning to invest heavily in a luggage manufacturer in California, urged by Seth (Tom Riley) who has been enthused by its ideas about expanding into online bespoke suitcases for middle-management business travellers “No one has harnessed that force”. Jenny sets her team of analysts (one of whom ends up in hospital, overdosed on wake-up pills) to work out that the way to the best fast profits is to close down the Sacramento factory , manufacture cheaply in Bangladesh for an emerging Chinese middle-class market, and rapidly sell on. Rick is still worried that their investors – secretive high net worth individuals and any pension fund with a conscience – will hate the loss of American jobs. Seth agrees. “If you make too many people too mad, they can change things” nervously citing the French Revolution. From Jenny drips icy staccato incomprehension .

 

 

Scenes change: it is all elegantly set in front of revolving mirrors reflecting either cold corporate offices ,a warmer California or finally Hong Kong. We meet Jeff the suitcase CEO (Joseph Balderama), enthusing Seth and only slowly suspecting the harsher intentions of Rick and Jenny. The plot thickens, with panic for the fund, an unsavoury rescue, a deal, and from Aidan McArdle the most chilling snorted laugh I have heard onstage for years.

 

It is barkingly funny, played with quartet precision under Anna Ledwich’s direction, and has at its heart not some jejune fury at “fatcats” but a serious observation: it is about the distinction between the warm breath of business – creating objects, services, value – and the icy mathematical chill of those who finance it. The hard-edged contemptuous purity of Jenny will haunt me for days. Not that she’ll care. As she says to Seth3 ‘ Allow less intelligent people to hate you. It’s their destiny, and it costs you nothing”.
A lesser writer, by the way, might have been tempted to draw the relationship between the two warring colleagues as Benedick and Beatrice, or at least throw in a sex scene. Not this one. Just pitiless mirth and Swiftian wit.

 

box office 020 7722 9301 to 3 march
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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