Monthly Archives: March 2018

MISS NIGHTINGALE Hippodrome, Leicester Square WC2



It’s WW2 themed. Gas masks, posters, programmes in an ARP fire-bucket and rude songs to cheer the troops on leave and show Hitler that Britain can take it. Our rorty show is upstairs while below on the broad casino floor black-tie gamblers – the real 2018 ones at the Hippodrome, serving unknowingly as atmospheric decor – rake the chips and spin the wheels as in frenzied semi-legal blackout London dive. For Matthew Bugg – creator, director producer of this spirited musical – has found the ideal glam-louche  venue for his tale of cabaret and illicit love. I always knew it would work even better at tables with drinks on them.



I feel inappropriately maternal, or auntly, about this show because I welcomed it first in 2011 at the Kings Head, writing that “Its theatrical roots spread from Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret to new burlesque, with a dash of Design for Living, touches of Rattigan angst and echoes of many a nightclubby, Blitzy, wartime-blackout romance of gin, gents and garter belts”. It was only 90 minutes then, with Ilan Goodman as the male lead; later I caught it on tour in Ipswich, all-grown-up and full length, and here it is again: tweaked and polished with a group of six versatile actor-musicians including the author himself and a hero who can play the kazoo and concertina simultaneously while his character’s heart is breaking. Lauren Chinery, brings to the title role of Maggie, the Lancashire nurse breaking into cabaret by night , a tough sturdiness which does fishnet glamour or comedy character songs with equal relish,  but gives the emotional, heartfelt numbers a real pindrop quietness.  When she reads a telegram about her soldier brother and sings , “They promised there’d be bluebirds” , it is a strong, sudden mood-changer.

For this is the balance the show has to strike, between Bugg’s  gorgeous pastiche ,comic-daring  patter songs and the emotional engine of a plot set against the serious miseries and social clashes of wartime. Maggie took into her lodgings George the Polish-Jewish exile , who now writes songs to launch her night job and falls in love with Sir Frank, the war hero and club impresario . This, remember, at a time when homosexuals were illogically arrested as presumed spies, “the enemy within” ; when fleeing into a sham marriage with a girl pregnant by a caddish blackmailing black-marketeer might be a way out of trouble. A time when George, as a gay Jew who fled Berlin, can say with ironic bitterness of gay arrests “This is how it begins…I have seen it”.

The show works a treat here, assisted by the Hippodrome ’s own echoes of Judy Garland . I still think Bugg’s first half is hampered by slowing the development of the plot and the tricky three-way relationship by indulging in one too many big cabaret numbers. But hey, we liked the songs for themselves. And there are some very different, seriously plot-developing emotional songs too. Matthew Floyd Jones is a find,  perfect casting as a waspish, pallidly troubled, camp and reckless George.  He is homesick for love and for Weimar freedoms:  his Meine Liebe Berlin (“fount of original sin..”) is unbeatable. Oliver Mawdsley’s Frank catches the awkward public-school-toff dread of scandal and exposure, and grows convincingly through cowardice to courage. Both acts  have  tremendous, complex trios as the three of them express their unachievable crossed desires.  And Chinery’s ability to change costume at lightning speed and storm through rude character sons about sausages, joysticks etc brings the house down. Welcome to Meine Liebe Hippodrome.     Not bad prices, either. to 6 may
raating four  4 Meece Rating


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SOLDIER ON Playground, W10



Boots, boots, boots, boots: stamping out the immemorial rhythm of army discipline, nineteen men and women move as one, expressionless, freed for a time from the burden of individuality .Then, a moment later, there is just one lone figure surrounded by empty boots. In the first of the strong visual metaphors in Jonathan Lewis’ play about ex-servicemen with PTSD devising a play together, a cleaner briskly sweeps the empty , useless boots away. There have been so many deaths.

That ensemble movement is echoed at times during the absorbing, sometimes violent, often funny, always engaging piece: Lily Hawkins’ movement direction is stunning, at times exploding into unexpected violent encounters, at others abruptly bringing the fractured , fractious group together in something beautiful. The first-half closing moment in particular sees a dignified officer crippled by MS and memory (played by Mark Kitto, ex Welsh-Guards). Ashamed of his deterioration in that most physical of environments, HM Royal Marines base at Lympstone he admits his tears and is supported by reaching hands, and lifted flying by an ensemble singing Coldplay’s “Fix You” . The heart lifts too.

Lewis – an actor and playwright now but formerly serving in the Army, is known for his west end success Our Boys, but in creating and directing this he focuses on PTSD: the disorder driving too many veterans of our recent wars to the divorce courts, streets and prisons. It is set in what the reluctant Sgt Major (Thomas Craig) calls a “rehabilitation exercise” – he would prefer some healthy Invictus sport. It is David Solomon as an eager director who has to entice a motley group into drama school improv and “sharing” stories which are still real and troublesome to them. A few are wives or mothers , struggling with their men’s impossible behaviour; one is a nurse from the Afghan front line who cannot forget one trembling, mutilated child.


The edge here is that Lewis is mixing professional long-term actors with veterans, only a few of whom have previous stage experience. Or in the case of Cassidy Little who plays “Woody”, subsequent experience: we remember him and his prosthetic leg as the star of the successful ex-soldiers play Charlie F, and he has worked widely on screen since. Not hampered, I must say, by rock-star looks and a certain risky energy. In this role, Lewis makes bountiful and aggressive use of that: . you really wouldn’t relax in a drama-school trust exercise with Woody in a bad temper. But then Jacko, Flaps, Hoarse and the rest are not peaceable or predictable either, and the pain and reluctance of real experience of horror is no easy fit with the (sometimes very entertaining) theatricality of the director.


Role-play of their real lives melts in and out of rehearsal arguments, army banter, a few sly jokes at the expense of theatre people and explosions (usually from Woody). A mother greets her returning soldier son: a wife tries to hear a precious five minute satphone call from the Indian Ocean while her children bicker in the kitchen, a squaddie with PTSD breaches an injunction to visit his alarmed wife and plead that it was his medication that had made him violent. And the real experience of the personnel from Soldiers’ Arts Academy melts seamlessly into the professionalism of staging and script. Theatre of war, theatre of theatre. Hard to beat.



box office 020 8960 0110 to 31 March
Planned transfer to York and Oxford. Keep raising the money. It’s worth it.
rating four   4 Meece Rating


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GOOD GIRL Trafalgar Studios SW1




Naomi Sheldon’s solo, semi-autobiographical hour comes from Edinburgh crowned with plaudits, though cunningly in the programme she does an “alternative poster” of rude things people have said about it. Like “Posh bird talks about women’s ‘hardships’”, and “stereotypical vagina talk”. Crafty, that. And indeed there is much to like in a well-crafted monologue, delivered with considerable physical and verbal agility as she comically manoeuvres as a sub-teen worrying about her lady-bits, or takes on the persona of Laura the Cool Schoolfriend who is less intensely bovvered about everything.



She also knowingly laces it with references which delighted the audience (mainly women, nearly all her own age). Patrick Swayze in Ghost, the Spice Girls, potato waffles, LIam Gallagher, Michael Jackson (one of her teenage pinups alongside Henry VIII). And, of course, that cliché of a self-help question so utterly baffling and faintly repellent to my generation, “What would Madonna do?|”. Her evocation of Sheffield schooldays is one of the best bits, the boys forever drawing dicks on “any flat surface” including her art project, the conspiratorial conversations about what sex might be, the amateur witch-coven round a dying hamster.



So I can see why it shone in the frenzied Fringe environment. And I would very much like to see this actress – sweet-faced, dungareed child of the millenim, in a play interacting with others. And, to be frank, with more gripping issues. I know I am older, raised in a culture more restrained and more broadly idealistic about love, honour and faith; , but I have vivid teenage memories too, and do not entirely believe in the utter fixation on sexual physicality which is the core theme, diluted only with repeated confessions of “rage”, not against anything specific, and with her metaphor of feeling that her body had no edges.


Certainly it is clear that sexual developing for some of her generation has often been an utterly joyless, mechanistic, impersonal affair, improved only by a short-lived obsession with lonely vibrator sessions so intense that even the sight of an AA battery could set her off. Similar female angst was better done in the solo version of FLEABAG, which was more bitterly honest about the damage of a sexually obsessive culture. But here, there is no sense of search for an actual lover or actual love – beyond the all-girls-together school gang . Nor do I entirely believe the narrative about the character selling herself at a masked sex-party, or fully buy her conclusion that it is good to be like her, full of passionate vague self-absorbed rage, one of the “people who burst at the seams” ; as against the “good girls with tidy little emotions and tidy little vaginas”.


www to 31 April
rating three   3 Meece Rating

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Two prisoners are locked in an Argentinian cell. Hungry, tired, nauseous, bored out of their minds…this critic jots down a handy metaphor for the whole evening. Kiss of the Spider Woman has had many lives (a novel, a play, a film) but one wonders how it passed the high bar of the Menier for another outing.


Sat in this dark, muddy cell is one man jailed for his gay life and another for his political life. Brightly drawn for us are chalk and cheese; gay and straight. This play wants to discuss masculinity…so two cartoon men have been wheeled in to discuss it for an hour and half. Laurie Sansom’s panto direction doesn’t help.


This adaptation (by José Rivera & Allan Baker) is a difficult watch; in that it’s hard to concentrate on trite themes being explored with flat dialogue. It is a rambling sentence with no chance of bail or an interval. The plot, despite a twist, is loose and fails to grip and a suddenly blossoming romance which fails to convince. Someone frequently making reference to “the resistance” and how they love it, believe in it and miss it isn’t dramatic. It’s a classic failing of show me,  don’t tell me.  It was one of those theatrical evenings where, out of desperate boredom, I lost myself so deeply in my own thoughts and mental wanderings I was almost entertained.



Both Sam Barnett and Declan Bennett are fine actors but their camp and macho double act here felt more at home in unfunny sketch comedy. Some cheap gags landed with those around me but for the most part it just felt like they were both just furiously punching flat lines hoping for a bit of life. The only reprieve and the only place these broad voices, dancing expressions and loud gestures made sense, were Sam Barnett’s character’s monologue retellings of his favourite romantic, melodramatic films. Jon Bausor’s wonderfully dank cell comes alive with some really impressive projections by Andrzej Goulding. Silhouetted figures from the tales come alive on the wall, dancing round the bricks and across the cell doors.  But pretty projections can’t raise this wreck.


Until 5th May

Box Office 020 7378 1713  to 5  May

rating  one  1 Meece Rating


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MACBETH Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford


It is awkward that two major new productions of the Scottish Play, by two determinedly auteurish directors, open in the same month. Rufus Norris’ bleak “post-Brexit” apocalyptica at the National Theatre came first, and now Polly Findlay’s RSC version takes the Stratford stage. Double, double, toil and – yes – trouble.



Impossible not to compare the two: both modern dress, both strongly directorial in concept,  both led by eminent actors – the seasoned Rory Kinnear at the NT, and here Christopher Eccleston, far newer to major Shakespeare. Both productions also share a taste for plastic baby dolls: at the NT dismembered and fixed to witches’ tummies, here carried by three witches who are for some reason small girls in pajamas and pom-pom bootees . The creepy chants become nursery impertinence, competently , but short on impact.

But if the Norris NT version was a graffiti Macbeth , scrawled on a pee-stained blockhouse, Findlay’s is more like one written in bold block capitals (which indeed are projected overhead, echoing significant lines). Its pace is unrelentingly staccato, emphatic, and with little variety of pace.  Where Norris’s was all swagger and bash, this one is strut and fret.   Violence is largely offstage till the end, and it is mercifully free of decapitations. But there hangs about both productions a sort of dismayed ambition: a desire for modern relevance at all costs and resentment of tradition and of verse. Wrong to compare, I suppose, but I yearned back to the Michael Boyd production which launched this RSC theatre . With less fear of “historic” trappings, ironically it hit home with stronger human power.


Findlay has some interesting ideas: she picks up the play’s repeated mention of time, with a digital clock running inexorably backwards like a bomb timer on SPOOKS, from the moment of Duncan’s murder to the death of Macbeth. The flash-freeze LATER moments give impetus to the final battle. One very sharp perception too is that Lady Macbeth’s emotional deterioration is triggered by hearing the cries of Macduff’s murdered children relayed to her mobile phone (one can sometimes wonder why she loses it so abruptly).


But those are consolations. Mostly, the production suffers from one-note, race-the-clock vigour; Ecclestone’s delivery (with the sole exception of Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow) is a real problem: jerky, seeming actively hostile to the idea that it is a verse play. Even in soliloquy he seems to be fighting to prevent us recognising the familiar words or reflecting on their extraordinary painful depth : more The Bill than the Bard.  Niamh Cusack is more at home with the text but plays Lady Macbeth hectic: an ambitious Rotary wife who  never got over being captain of games. As a scold to her husband she is good, and the sleepwalking is finely done. But like her husband she is rarely allowed to express any of the the interiority  of feeling, horror, determination and remorse which make the play so disturbing .


The only frisson of real feeling and arresting, affecting delivery is from Edward Bennett’s Macduff: the only one of the classic scenes which strikes properly home is his receiving the news of his family’s murder – his “What, all..?” is superbly shocking, with Luke Newberry’s fine public-schoolboy Malcolm crassly interrupting his grief to urge revenge.


As to Fly Davis’ set, it might be a concrete hall in a brutalist 1960’s college of further education, with a sharp rectangular gallery.  You don’t feel that Macbeth wins any kingdom worth murdering for. The porter is an all-purpose janitor in white socks (Michael Hodgson does get a couple of laughs) and sits gloomily at the side throughout, delivering odd messenger lines or wandering round with a Bex-Bissel carpet sweeper.


Polly Findlay is an excellent director – BEGINNING, LIMEHOUSE, TREASURE ISLAND in London, an inventive Merchant of Venice in the big house here, two very good Renaissance plays in the Swan. But this is not her finest hour. And between them, the two March-beth openings make me cry “Hold, enough!” and hope that soon the pendulum will swing. And directors stop being scared of the Scottish Play and return to more reflective and respectful renderings . Meanwhile, the unfortunate A level set-book class of 2018 are at risk of associating it only with concrete, gaffer-tape, plastic dollies and carpet-sweepers.


box office 0844 800 1110 to
rating, three.  Just. 3 Meece Rating


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Lights up. A confederate statue. A blackout. And it disappears. It’s November 1963 and we’re in Lake Charles, Louisiana. JFK has just been assassinated. There’s a rumble of a shift of something in the air but for Caroline Thibodeaux, nothing ever changes in Louisiana. She’s 39, divorced, and has four children. For twenty-two of her thirty-nine years she has worked as a maid for a wealthy white Jewish family. She dreams of being kissed by Nat King Cole. 

Musicals rarely get to be this important. And important this one is. The Chichester revival of this play was performed in the wake of the Charleston Church shooting by then 21-year-old white supremacist Dylan Roof. Shortly after the end of the run came the Charlottesville Rally – a rally organised in protest at the proposed removal of a bronze statue of Confederate General, Robert E Lee. It is sobering to think that though more than 50 years have passed since the time of this somewhat autobiographical Kushner piece, black Americans still are still fighting the same fight, still in all the same places.
The state of our world increasingly forces those who live in it to face the conundrum of trying to reconcile diametrically opposed philosophical ideals. It’s a recurring quandary in this play: Should we love the men who abuse us? Is an ally really an ally if they promise change but act in a complacence that perpetuates the status quo? Who is right in the conflict of the elder who just wants a quiet life and the younger who is ready for a revolution? Is it ever OK to use immoral means to attain moral ends? Can we justify the use of moral means to preserve immoral ends? In Caroline’s final solo number she calls to God for an answer, but there are no simple ones.
The power of the 17-strong ensemble produced the the kind of chemistry that draws you to the edge of your seat. I saw much of my younger self in Abiona Omonua’s portrayal of Emmie Thibodeaux, the sixteen-year-old ‘high-spirited’ daughter of Caroline, who doesn’t believe in the idea of unquestionable respect and spoke back to the adults around her accordingly. Similarly relatable was Naana Agyei-Ampadu as Dotty Moffett, the bobby sock and saddle shoe wearing black woman who was using education as a means to a better life. The Radio trio that was T’Shan Williams, Carole Stennett and Sharon Rose gave TLC mixed with The Supremes vibes. It was special. In fact, all of The Objects deserve a shout out: Me’sha Bryan as the Washing Machine, Angela Caesar as The Moon, Ako Mitchell as The Dryer and The Bus. inanimate by name, but definitely not by nature. And of course, there was Sharon D Clarke. There are places deep inside us that only song can reach; when her – sometimes mellifluous, sometimes scorching – tones reach that place, they shake your soul and awaken your spirit.
The two-and-a-half hour performance is visually gorgeous thanks to stage and costume design by Fly Davis and Ann Yee’s choreography. Jeanine Tesori’s music teamed with Tony Kushner’s book and lyrics were made for each other. Add to that the direction by Michael Longhurst – the man who brought us the five star spectacle that is Amadeus, currently on at the National Theatre – and it is a recipe for a perfect production. It is impossible to fathom how this musical was a Broadway flop; those Americans clearly don’t know a good thing when they see one.
Box office 020 7722 9301  TO 21 APRIL
£10 tickets for under 30s
5 Meece Rating

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The candlelit Wanamaker has proved its worth as a music-room, notably with All The Angels and the divine Farinelli. This takes it further with the first wordless performance: Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié of Gyre and Gimble the master-puppeteers create a silent story with half-sized, fully-jointed physically expressive but undecorated hard-foam “bunraku” puppets. Five expert puppeteers control them, one or two at a time in perfect concord so human and object blend into something other. Their narrative is an expression of Max Richter’s “recomposition” of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. A six-piece orchestra plays overhead: baroque violins, viola, ‘cello and harpsichord/synthesizer.



Which all sounds a bit recherché: could be a tough hour, you’re thinking, since anything drawn from Japanese theatrical tradition can be an acquired taste . Actually, it is a beautiful and accessible performance, somewhere between mime, dance and theatrical epic. Sometimes, indeed, you are so bound up in the emotional lives of the pale puppets that you suddenly think “hang on, what’s that stuck on his foot?” before realizing that it is the fingers of the puppeteer, and that every movement of this seemingly vivid being is being controlled by humans you have somehow stopped noticing…



It is a story they tell – of lovers and their child, of ordeals, travels, death and loss and discovery. But as the creators teasingly insist, it is one onto which we project our own interpretations. However, there is certainly folktale in there, because the puppet figures are sometimes physically literal – walking, running, falling, struggling, fighting their handlers or slumped in wrenching despair – but they can also fly and float surreally as if becoming their own dreams. In one extraordinary sequence near the end the central figure relives the events of a whole life.



The story begins with a sweetly awkward park-bench courtship, and a breathless pause when father kneels before mother as she holds her belly. There is a suitcase and a parting, one parent gone far from a child-puppet who crawls, stumbles, takes first steps with the other. Separation, obstacles, struggle; deaths, a trek home, a graveyard or mortuary of strange gnarled shapes like old bark , weeping desolation. Once mother and child fight together through great hard shapes, leap a ravine. A river, swimming, a corpse…any of it could be a dream, or a real refugee journey, or both.



Late on a lonely figure fights for life, or maybe just sanity, against a cloud of blue flapping inchoate cloths which become ghost figures. You’re engrossed, the music sharp in your head, every note and move significant, very human. By the way, there are a couple of “relaxed performances”: for some, it may form an even stronger connection than it does to us “neurotypicals”. And that is overwhelming enough…



box office
to 21 April
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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This terrific meteorological thriller, set in the crucial days before D-Day, is written by – and stars – David Haig. In 2014 at Chichester a lot of us predicted (nay, demanded) a West End transfer, and were thwarted. It has been touring, under the banner of Cambridge Arts and the Touring Consortium, and to catch it in Bath was more than a treat. Capital city, you now have your chance. Don’t blow it…



Directed by John Dove with sure, sharp concentration, it is a beautifully researched and immaculately pitched piece about the British meteorologist Dr Stagg (adept in spotting temperamental weather here) who had to defy Eisenhower’s own met-man and tell the vulnerable expeditionary force first not to go on D-Day – and then, even more audaciously, to take a run at it in the 8-hour lull between storms the next day. It should outlast the actor-writer who made it, and become part of the canon of WW2 dramatic chronicles, like Flare Path or The River Line. My 2014 review is here – and gives you the bones of the story:
But I would now add to that that Haig’s performance is even more refined, a scientist under terrible pressure to tell his truth to power, sometimes tremblingly afraid of being wrong, passionately calling in more and more information. To create an edge-of-the-seat thriller in which minutes on end have to consist of people taking down figures off the telephone is achievement enough: to humanize it like this, even better.
The casting is spot-on too: Malcolm Sinclair was born to be Eisenhower, snarlingly charming, towering over valiant little Stagg, softening in his encounters with his lover Lt Summersby (Laura Rogers, also excellent). And honour to Michael Mackenzie’s facial expression as Admiral Ramsay when – in charge of those flat-bottomed landing-craft and cumbersome concrete floating harbours – he hears Stagg speak of possible 10ft waves. Which would have drowned thousands, had Ike not believed the Briton.
And Mackenzie also turns up in one of the useful moments of light relief, as an electrician, one of the craftsmen drafted in to the D Day HQ at Southwich House. And not allowed to go home, because once you knew the immense secret of Operation Overlord, you were sequestered.
As I say, I stand by my original review and every last mouse of it. Richmond next week, then Park Theatre NW
rating five  5 Meece Rating

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BRIEF ENCOUNTER Empire, Haymarket



Ten years ago Emma Rice and her Kneehigh group brought this adaptation of Noel Coward’s heartrending film to the stage – to a cinema stage, artfully and merrily referencing the golden age of cinemagoing . And we all found it utterly adorable. Irresistible. On the far side of her brief unhappy tenure at the Globe, here it comes again, with a few fine tweaks, to remind us what Rice does best, and how playful, inventive, sincere and inspiring Kneehigh can be when it beats its own path through the woods.



Especially when bouncing off beloved classics (their Rebecca was terrific). Indeed this revamped version of Alec and Laura’s story is even better, now with all its songs from Noel Coward himself (I’d forgotten Go Slow Johnny.. you’re no Brando, rallentando..). It’s a little classic in its own right, from the breathtaking moment when the real guilty lovers are sitting in the audience with us in the Empire, and Laura’s husband calls her from the black and white screen… and she plunges through it, away from the living passionate Alec and back into her monochrome home life.



, My daughter hadn’t even known the film, and she loved it: for those who do, there is no jarring in the vaudevillian opening-out of the action with larky refreshment-room and station staff ,(Dean Nolan as Godby is a right caution, as we’d have said in the ‘50s) . The live band onstage and the songs , especially from Jos Slovick, take nothing at all away from the simple doomed romance but actually add to it. Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson are not traduced here but worthily reborn in Jim Surgeon and Isabel Pollen, not stilted but delicately in period, respectable folk of the 1930’s swept up in the crashing waves of the Warsaw Concerto. But the layering of the three romances is perfect as a counterpoint to the exalted impossibility of their great non-affair. Stanley and Beryl (Beverly Rudd in all her glorious cartoon performances is another caution) are free to slap-and-tickle with the insouciance of fresh youth, Nolan and Kieve represent a middle-aged, battered kind of freedom. Love is all around, but only the principals can get nowhere.


The staging is even more fun than last time, with no fewer than four ways of making trains pass the station: entire cast juddering in time for the Express, once a toy train, once Beryl dashing through with a smoke-canister, and two kinds of projection, large and small. It’s Kneehigh , sky-high. Glorious.



0844 8717628;  to Sept
rating five  5 Meece Rating

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If there is one stumbling block for lovers of Graham Greene’s darkly thrilling gangster novel, it is the elegance of Gloria Onitiri. She is Ida; and Greene’s redoubtable warrior for justice is in the book a large Cockney with a beery laugh and a market-trader’s sharpness: her pursuit of the murderous young Pinkie for the sake of the “Fred” he killed is fuelled by righteousness, but of an indeterminate old-fashioned variety . She stands for a sense – so restful to the tormented Catholicism of Greene – that “right and wrong” are very different to sexual sin and virtue. She’s big and bonny and maternal and blessedly common. But in Esther Richardson’s otherwise faithful production of Bryony Lavery’s thoughtful adaptation, for all her excellence as an actor Onitiri is more cocktail-and-torch-song than beery, matey singalong. She just is.



So I stumbled a bit. But in every other way Greene is beautifully served, and not just in Sara Perks’ fabulous dark design – a fraction of iron pier towering overhead, steps which move and swirl and through which once, unforgettably, the skinny villain squirms between the steps to grab his quarry. As Pinkie Jacob James Beswick is physically perfect- scrawny, starveling child of the slums, he has a hard young face and a restless, jerky teenage insolence in every move. HIs moment of arrogant defensive pathos when he is beaten up, his sexual terror and his cowed moment when confronted with the (gender-switched) Colleoni are well-judged: you can’t take your eyes off him: the boy gone wrong. Sarah Middleton is equally perfect as the waitress Rose, catching both her naiveté and the sharp simple intelligence that threatens Pinkie’s alibi. She also makes credible that terrifying Catholic belief that she will “burn” and will be glad to, for love. The extreme youth of the pair is there in all its pathos, extremism and perennial warning. Their story holds you solidly , especially in the second half once the inter-gangster stuff is fading from the foreground.




The latter iswell enough done, though I would plead one cause with all directors who cast inescapably male characters as women (Spicer is Angela Bain) . Just pay more attention to small physicalities, like hair. If Cubitt, Dallow and Pinkie have unforgiving 1950’s cuts you get distracted by female hair under the hoodlum hat. You just do. Which is a shame when such immense care has gone into everything else visual, into beautifully fast, fluid staging moves and a loving creation of that dark 1950’s seaside underworld complete with its slang (lesser adaptors would have given up “buer” and “milky”, but not this one. But the two young principals are more than worth seeing. It tours on.

touring to 26 May. COLCHESTER Mercury theatre this week
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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GREAT EXPECTATIONS Bury st Edmnds Theatre Royal, and TOURING




Putting great literary masterpieces onstage is an erratic business. Within the same week we see the Artistic Director of the National Theatre buggering up Macbeth – despite a stellar cast and centuries of interpretation to draw on – while elsewhere in our unpredictable theatrical jungle a shoestring company tours a respectfully inventive, pretty much perfect version of something which far harder to stage: Dickens’ Great Expectations with its knotty, preposterous interwoven plots.



But Tilted Wig, co-producing with Malvern Theatres, have done just that. Ken Bentley’s adaptation (relevantly, he is a radio drama veteran) makes unfussed use of Dickens’ narration, enabling him to include some of the author’s sarcastic asides on matters such as lawyers. It is picked up by different cast members as the scenes flow naturally into one another : some have to achieve instant changes from deep-involved character and accent to calm RP narration. Which is particularly striking in that it never actually strikes you at all – the story just goes on.



James Turner’s set is perfect: an iron-framed box on two levels, both refuge and cage, evoking just enough Victoriana. This elegant device (with Ollie King overhead on the concertina and some really classy sound and light design) contains with panache the set-piece moments – from the shock on the bleak marshes to the smithy, the filmy-draped world of mad Miss Havisham, with a dead rat in her jewel-box, the storm, the fire and the desperate moments by the steamer on the dark Thames tideway. Lantern-light, a trap and rapid-folding doors do it all.



So easy is it to relax into the story, and so neat and credible are the characters (nine actors for the 27 characters plus ensemble) , that it is surprisingly easy to pick up modern echoes : Estella (Isla Carter) after all is a trafficked child, stolen from the underclass by Jaggers and deliberately radicalized by Miss Havisham in her personal jihad against men. The theme of class barriers is more obvious, Sean Aydon beautifully carrying Pip’s yearning to be an educated gentleman , the overwhelming his decent nature by teenage cockiness, an his final taming to gentle regret at the sourness of his elevation. The heartbreaking division between him and Joe Gargery strikes home when that decent blacksmith gently but firmly refuses to dine with him in London because it wouldn’t be fitting . Actually, I have long regarded Joe Gargery as one of the most beautiful characters in fiction, and the performance by curly-haired, open-faced Edward Ferrow had me in tears several times. Actually, blast him, he rather set me off when he was Wemmick as well. Oh, and so did Daniel Goode’s Magwitch.



And I haven’t even mentioned the big-name star, the Olivier name: Nicola McAuliffe is Miss Havisham. Wow. A tower of lacy off-white netting, a vulturous, wearily ironic frilly tragedienne, she towers over Pip and Estella like a puppetteer. Her final emotional meltdown and immolation could bring Dickens himself applauding from the other side. Only my beloved Joe Gargery stands up to her with dignity: I nearly cheered.


So terrific. And while the fifth star or mouse is often supposed by tradition to belong only to life-changing innovation, in awarding it now I must make it clear that for me the fifth one is often more fitly represented by a heart. I loved the production. A thrill to see it in Bury’s Georgian theatre, but it will be a delight to Dickensians everywhere, and a means of conversion to others. Bravo.
touring to 23 June nationwide, Richmond next!   Touring Mouse wide

rating five   5 Meece Rating


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Is love a Gothic Cathedral, a yearning for a permanent, holy, respectful connection to the best in our nature? Or is it lust and fun, animal attraction, a reckless erotic adventure? Well, at its best it is both: but when Alma the minister’s daughter interprets her liking for John the medical student as part of her yearning for eternity, he meets it with impatient brutal words, makes her look hard at the ugliness of an anatomical diagram . She decries his gambling, even his pose – “Don’t sit like that, you look so indolent and worthless”, he shrugs and turns to Roza the casino-owner’s daughter. Who, in Alma’s view , is part of the distressing, threatening deeper south which alarms and fascinates anyone striving to be a Southern Lady – “all the Latinos dream in the sun and indulge their senses..”



And the sadness of their story, played out in a sultry MIssissippi summer when a disastrous gunshot is never far away, is that each converts the other , but too late. Four years ago I saw Rebecca Frecknell’s production of this rarely seen, elegiac Tennessee Williams play in the Southwark Playhouse tunnel: I called it a jewel. It is fine to see that her directorial passion for the piece endured, for this is the same director’s grander production. In the smart Almeida it is set with remarkable expressionist symbolism, Tom Scutt’s set a shallow ellipse of nine pianos on, behind, around and upon which assorted characters not necessarily in the scene are placed; sometimes playing an obbligato to keep the mood or giving a few notes to represent the coming of the cool Gulf Wind or a doorbell. Sometimes they light up. Composition is by Angus MacRae, musical direction by Mark Dickman.


And it is clever, but for me sometimes a little to the detriment of the play’s beauty. For Tennessee Williams’ world of yearning, damaged, misbehaving, disappointed, painfully lovable characters, hanging on to hope and life by their fingernails, is expressed as always in lyrical language and emotional images so heartbreakingly poetic that you resent missing even a single word due to murmured moments of extreme naturalism; or indeed having an agonised significant pause accompanied by a mere theatrical bit of cleverness. Williams doesn’t need that: the heart beats too strong for any of the modish tropes of modern productions to matter.


But oh, it is a lovely piece, and the performances at its heart honest and finely drawn. Patsy Ferran is beyond superb as Alma the preacher’s daughter, pious and ladylike, prone to hyperventilating, and changing before our eyes, with painful growth, to the moment when she says too late that wrenching line “The girl who said no doesn’t exist, She died last summer” and comes ironically to understand what courtship is after years of condemning the kind of woman who known for “making the acquaintance of travelling salesmen”.


Matthew Needham is equally strong, equally heartbreaking in the end. Their connection, despite his (very Tennessee-Williams) tendency to bully and mock her beliefs, is intense. With economical simplicity other parts are doubled or more, Anjana Vasan particularly impressive (with a fierce torch-song) as Rosa the Latina, the dark sensuous angel, and milder as Nellie. Nothing is wasted, no irony or brief sad laugh unmarked. At times the selfconscious staging irritated me, a little. But the beauty shone through, and honour to Frecknall for championing this gorgeous, gentle play.



box office 0207 359 4404
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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MACBETH Olivier, SE1




You don’t expect robes and battlements these days. This is a shaven-head-and-machete Macbeth, its theme an indeterminate, timeless squalor: possibly a feral modern war, possibly post-apocalyptic. The murder of Duncan, set thus, is hard to see as regicidal sacrilege – ‘his silver skin laced with his golden blood”. Though the always fine Stephen Boxer as the short-lived monarch does, with characteristic subtlety, manage to express something I had never really noticed: that his betrayal by the original Cawdor , who he had t,rusted, distressed and unbalanced him into over-trusting the tricky Macbeths. The problem, however, is that the world Rufus Norris directs in Rae Smith’s tenebrous, crumpled-binbag-and-blockhouse set with its dark steep trundling ramp ,towering diseased trees, disorderly roistering and makeshift armour fastened on with rolls of duct-tape, seems as if it never had any place for loyalty, moral codes or civilized reflection. Indeed the only times we glimpse any furniture that isn’t plastic or a folding old camping-table are in the home of Lady Macduff and the English refuge of young Donald (it may be that the presence of a carpet and sofa and tidier clothes is code for higher moral virtue). Though Lady Macbeth does eventually get out of her vest and pleather jeans into a ragged ,sub-Oscar, sequinned raspberry frock once she is Queen.



The bleak, smoky, savage setting makes Rory Kinnear’s task as the racked, tempted, murderous, hesitant, panicking Macbeth harder than it need be. Of course he is as ever a great Shakespearian, each word and gesture achieved with intelligence and feeling. His relationship with the equally remarkable Anne Marie Duff as his sexy, tricky, maternally hungry and tormented wife is as good as I have seen it. Their first eye-meet, when each knows that the other is thinking murder, is riveting, as is the moment when he holds her dead body in his arms for “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…” Norris’ technique of creating action-freezes for soliloquies helps in the first half too, detaching Kinnear for a merciful moment from the thuggish hopeless scene.



Yet somehow, I’m not quite buying it. We are used to gore and nasty things hung on trees and lots beheadings, ever since the technology for reproducing actors’ heads improved. Fine. But unlike the Hytner Othello – set in a modern army camp – or his Hamlet in a recognizable police-state, the misery-world evoked here gives no sense that there ever were nobilities to be breached by the Macbeths. It’s just chaos, and you expect no better. There are excellent Norris touches – the always problematic “comedy’ porter (Trevor Fox) is allowed to have seen into Duncan’s death-room, and weaves into his ramblings bits of Lady Macbeth’s speech about boneless gums and nipples. That absolutely works. So does Alana Ramsey as a cross-gendered Second Murderer, giving it large as a furious slaggy blonde in fishnets , fur boots and machete: the character’s claim that life has treated her so badly that she’ll do anything has a MeToo feeling about it, and Ramsey is superbly vicious, presenting Lady Macduff with her slaughtered babies in plastic bags like a nightmare Ocado delivery. Kevin Harvey’s Banquo is excellent too, with a dry civilized air about him which makes his return as a bloodstained lurching zombie ghost all the more effective.



Oh, and the witches? They’re OK: shamanic, acrobatic, eerie, one wearing what looks like entrails outside her body but which turn out to be bits of dismembered baby dolls. Or possibly actual babies, it’s that sort of show. But on the whole, by the time the three main zombie victims return to watch the final fight (King Duncan endearingly finding a plastic chair to settle down and watch from) there is no sense of a tragic fall. Just of another thuggish gang war,  an East End brawl with no sense to it and not much hope for young Donald.



box office 020 7452 3000 to 23 june
in cinemas NT LIVE on 10 May
and touring nationwide from Sept 2018
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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Love stories take many forms. Here – electric, understated, unmistakeable and timeless – the erotic connection is between Ben Batt’s George , farm labourer in a tied cottage in the 1960s, and Jonathan Bailey as the assistant director of the York Passion plays. George has been recruited as an authentic local voice, urged on despite his rugged modesty by the sweet chapel-going Doreen (Katie West a quiet delight) who takes his old Mum to Meetings and knows, deep down, that he is “not for marrying”.



Still illegal, though quietly tolerated by the farm family, the affair is also doomed by the utter divergence of their habitats, lifestyles, and a sense of distance between town and country which today feels both authentic and, mercifully, dated. TV would by now have rubbed some of the rugged chapel-and-calving simplicities off Mother , neighbour Doreen, and the delightfully gormless teenage nephew Jack; fast communication might have held the lads together for longer. Even though John won’t give up his advancing southern career to live in a leaky nearby cottage, while George makes it clear that London and its attractions were fine for visiting but “I live here”! With some sorrow he rejects John’s faith that he could actually have an acting career “I’m past that”. Today, God willing, he would be working in Sheffield Theatre, co-producer of this production.



For Peter Gill’s 2002 play, which won plaudits but not universal acclaim at first (Charles Spencer was entertainingly rude) is rendered in the Donmar’s intimacy by director Robert Hastie as something perfect: delicate, clear and natural as an upland upland brook. It can be earthy – George is the seducer , and has a startling admission of how he found out that he was gay after chasing girls unsuccessfully one evening and then saying to his mate “Better be you, then..”. John, more fey and puppyishly shyer, rises to passionate declaration and thwarted anger only later, after the death of old Mum (a fine Lesley Nicol, ringing utterly true to anyone with Yorkshire relatives of a certain age).



It is full of glancing, important themes, and not just about odd-couple love (it rather helps that the lovers are gay: in a 1960s heterosexual tale the girl would almost certainly have gone to live where and how the man chose). It also reflects on how an urban middle-class had colonized the world of “culture”, as the locals are given their own heritage of mystery plays by directorial incomers. Yet where that’s concerned, the most heartening scene is after the interval as the whole family, including lumpen Arthur the brother-in-law and teenage Jack, get back exhilarated from the show to exclaim about how grand it was, and how swept up they were by the old story and how George, as a tormentor, was “that cruel!”.


box office 0203 282 3808 to 24 March

RATING four 4 Meece Rating

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“I never boasted an education. I learned tricks” says Princess Margaret, bitterly, at a late point in Richard Stirling’s interesting but frustrating new play. For a moment you think – yes, that’s it! if a wilful, lively, pretty young woman learns nothing of science, history, and the deeper nobility of history and literature, but all she is given is that Princess status, things will go sour for her. And they did. Between the impertinent imaginations of The Crown on Netflix , and the brilliant “99 glimpses” collected from memoirs by Craig Brown in his book Ma’am Darling, there is a resurgence of interest in the Queen’s late sister. So Stirling’s play is well placed to attract interest.



And with more refinement, it could be genuinely worthwhile. It encounters the Princess in lateish middle age and the royal family’s Annus Horribilis: she’s divorced from Snowdon , resenting Diana (“Golden Girl”) and bitching about the “rentaKents” next door. Separated for the moment from her young lover Roddy, she is engaged in a curious incident, based on reality, when she burned a number of potentially damaging letters and papers from the Queen Mother’s Clarence House.



Stirling himself plays the QM’s ‘page” Backstairs Billy, with rather more camp than is strictly necessary, assisting her and keeping the drinks coming. A fictional young chancer turns up, to indicate the general hunger for royal gossip and leaks, and in the second and more interesting half the thuggish ex-con Bindon (in real life one of her Mustique pals) turns up, terminally ill, to challenge her.



That bit is interesting, touching at times. And Felicity Dean is brilliant as Margaret, catching – whenever the script allows – a confusion between being posh and frozenly Princessy and being slangy and matey: a problem widely observed by those who perceived her best. Patrick Toomey’s Bindon is strong too, and between them we get some real chemistry. Though I doubt he’d have rough-housed her as readily with staff in the next room, ex-lover or not.


But the terrible slow-burn of the first half merely exasperates: the witty one-liners are placed too obviously from real memoirs, and you get no real sense of the mixed hauteur and familiarity in her rather overlong dealings with Billy. I really want this to be a better play, and it may grow into one. But too much misfires. The best line is when Bindon threatens her saying “If you were a man – “ and she snaps “If I were a man, I’d be king”. That hits home. to 17 March
rating two  2 meece rating

PS    By the way, the excellent co-production of A Passage to India is still running in the bigger space at the Park…till the 24th.  This is my Northampton review of it:




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FROZEN Theatre Royal, Haymarket




Last time I encountered a monologue written for a paedophile abuser, it was by Alan Bennett in a remarkable – and I think unrepeated – TV Talking Heads . That was a brave and haunting performance by David Haig as a tempted, succumbing, park-keeper with an edge of virtuous prissiness about other people’s behaviour. Braver still, because ineffably nastier, but with that same edge of prissiness we have here Jason Watkins’ rendering of “Ralph”. Bryony Lavery’s multiply disturbing play is about a mother’s experience when her 10 year old daughter has been first missing, then confirmed dead ,dismembered and stored in a lock-up shed by a man with a stash of “Lesbian Lolitas” videos who is capable of saying petulantly to a psychiatrist “The only thing I”m sorry about is that it’s not legal. Killing girls”. He got seven of them, over 21 years .



There are three stunning performances – Jason Watkins’ knock-kneed, lame- footed, hunchedly amiable and incurable selfpitying killer shows off his tattoos and brags about his gift for organisation. Suranne Jones is the dead child’s mother, assuredly moving between mundane Midlands practicality beneath her fine ironic eyebrows and the deepest, angriest of griefs before reaching a strange resolution. And you believe in every step. The third, the wild card, is Nina Sosanya as an American-Icelandic psychologist , KCL lecturer and author of a paper entitled “Serial killing – a forgivable act?”  She is of the school that considers atrocities as symptoms, not sins.


Which took Lavery – early on the curve –  into the now-modish dramatic territory of neuroscience and theories about frontal lobe deficiencies, early influence on empathetic connection, bangs on the head leading to irresistible criminal impulses, etc. It all feels very up to date, though the play first aired over a decade ago.   Additional dramatic interest – and a bit of artful internal sabotage – is added because the psychiatrist is a bit of a horror herself. Our first glimpses of Sosanya, in the sequence craftsmanlike initial monologues, shows the learned scientist having the screaming abdabs over leaving New York, then sitting on a plane writing vengeful messages to her illicit lover and research colleague while necking brandy,  insulting the stewardess and greeting the seat-belt sign with a shriek of “We’re all going to die” .Nor are her “boundaries” in a series or prison interviews with Ralph very convincingly set, given that her own self -pity and self-importance are almost as marked as his.



But maybe that’s the point: certainly in the electric, even more uncomfortable second act when against the bossy shrink’s recommendation the mother confronts the killer in a restorative-justice meeting. Rapidly (God, Suranne Jones is good, and Watkins a brave actor!) she reaches more important depths than the expert ever did.  Lavery is never a simplistic writer, so I hope she will forgive a certain bracing conclusion which any of us may make as we shiver in the stalls: that when it comes to understanding the depth, strangeness, redeemability and motivation of human beings you will get more insight from a tough ordinary mother with life-experience than from any self-regarding American psychiatrist who calls herself a “voyager in the frozen wastes of the criminal mind.”



You could also reflect that forgiveness is the best revenge. It certainly turns out that way in the agonizing final scenes. It’s a terrific play, actually. And on a frozen snow-day on the Haymarket, I should record that instinctively most of a middling-thin matinee audience rose to its feet to applaud the three principals. Oh, and turning up late post-holiday, I bought my own stalls ticket and don’t regret it for a moment.


box office 020 7930 8800 to 5 May
rating four   4 Meece Rating



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I am happy to say that in the second act there is some inappropriate sexual harassment. By garishly clad fairies, deploying weaponized soprano trills and terrorism-by-tutu as they move in crazed by desire for the middle aged, timidly bachelorly members of the House of Lords. That their Queen and their faery laws forbid marriage to mortals means nothing to the reckless, trippingly St-Trinian chorus: Iolanthe got away with it and bore a camp demi-fairy son Strephon after all. And any minute now, assisted by some legislative sleight of hand, their Queen too will succumb to a philosophically minded mortal guardsman and give him instant wings.



I was not always a devotee of Gilbert-and-Sullivan , having been depressed by too much D’Oyly Cartery in youth. But newer productions – notably the hilarious all-male ones – have drawn me back, and this completes it. For English National Opera to recruit Cal McCrystal – our most precise and inventive creator of physical comedy – to direct this feyest of politico-legal satires from 1882 is a masterstroke.



Musically of course it is splendid, under Timothy Henty and with the ENO chorus and seasoned soloists (Samantha Price as Iolanthe is, wisely, allowed the show’s one un-comical and genuinely moving operatic moment as she pleads for her son near the end). Paul Brown’s design, with pretty Pollock-theatrey cutouts and a very nice wheel-on House of Lords, is beautifully Victorian , with added nonsense when the peers crash through the paper backdrop aboard Stephenson’s Rocket . Several fairies (and one peer) do fly. But McCrystal’s touch, and comic vision, is what makes it special.



From the first moment when the fairies, of all shapes and sizes, trip into their opening chorus in dazzling chaotic outfits, acorn-capped or daffodil-daffy, and move like a determined keep-fit class for mature Lacroix fashion-victims, you have to laugh. At the dances, the moves, the drink-dispensing unicorn, the gloriously absurd puppetry going wrong. The director has brought in three of his regular performers for the extreme physicality – notably Richard Leeming as the Chancellor’s page is hurled around almost distressingly and emerges gamely every time. But the operatic regulars are more than up for it, stomping and tripping and milking every good joke. When Marcus Farnsworth’s amiable nitwit Strephon sings his lovely duet with Ellie Laugharne’s Phyllis, they gamely ignore the fact that the black-masked puppeteers manoeuvring sheep behind them can’t see through their masks, and bump into one another as helplessly they search for the wings. Which feels, delightfully, like a nod of acknowledgement to the hundreds of am-dram productions of G &S down the years which kept the flame alive..



Anyway, it’s a delight. Really is. The new jokes – notably the fireman one – are a pleasure, but not too much is done to modernize it. And surtitles, if you can tear your eye away from the mayhem on stage, remind us of the utter brilliance, the absurdism, mad rhymes, unexpected neatness and damn sharp satire which WS Gilbert flung out like a literary Catherine-wheel. Gorgeous. I recant. I regret the years of avoiding G&S.


box office 0333 023 1550 to 7 April
rating five  5 Meece Rating




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