Monthly Archives: April 2018

PRESENT LAUGHTER                  Chichester Festival Theatre




         In the final outburst from our hero Gary Essendine –  silk-dressing-gowned philanderer,  arrogantly insecure darling of the West End    his backer Henry reveals that he has booked the Forum Theatre and the actor howls that he cannot do a light French farce in a space like Wembley Stadium.   A similar faint misgiving afflicted me at the thought of this lighter-than-air Noel Coward comedy surviving in this big airy theatre (especially after the cocktail-sharp intimate miniatures  of Tonight at 830 in the teeny Jermyn last Sunday, see below) .   And for much of the first half deep unease persisted.  On Alice Power’s detailed, towering, detail-perfect set (some very funny touches)  there was shouting.  Yelling.   Overdoing it to the point of mania.  



       Didn’t matter with Lizzy Connolly’s ditzy, Sloaney invader of her hero’s apartment ,  voguing around in his silk pyjamas the morning after “losing her latch-key”.  Nor did a bit of extreme upstaging bother me when Tamzin Griffin as the housekeeper repeatedly hobbled around the stage in the manner of Mrs Overall.  And Katherine Kingsley as the ex-wife and Tracy-Ann Oberman as Monica the secretary both were as tart , emotionally restrained  and deadly on-the-lines as they should be.  



     But Rufus Hound –  better known as a standup, TV host and fiery left activist –   is the oddest possible casting for Essendine!     He is thuggish not smooth,  laddish not sophisticated.    Coward wrote for the smooth, the clipped, the swish deployer of killer asides.      Even Essendine’s dramatic  absurdities, designed to fend off clinging girls ,  are cool Charles-and-Fiona stuff.    “There’s something awfully -sed – about heppiness”  “I can’t be free like other men..I belong to my public”.    Hound just  yells them.    Thus by kicking off at top volume Mach 3 from the start  he eaves himself  no space for the real panics into which his entourage throws him  as the farce speeds up later.  



      Ben Allen’s Maule, the obsessed stalker-worshipper,  goes hell-for-leather too,  giving us no time to wonder whether he is as mad as he seems.    Great laugh lines are wasted: at times the first act is like hearing Bach played on kazoo-and-tuba,  or brain surgery in boxing gloves.   When at last Lucy Briggs-Owen sashays on as the man-killing Joanna you sigh with relief: at last a classic classy Coward-cool character, a long streak of slink and scorn and sexual threat. She’s wonderful.



        But what begins as a  comedy of manners does turn gradually into true farce,:  wrong people behind doors,  disastrous  revelations of affairs, panic.   And in this area director Sean Foley is wholly reliable: a master when it comes to sofa-bounces,  painful handshakes (an excellent joke here near the end),  and the possibilities of soda-siphons and spilled drinks.   So the second half is properly full-on funny.   And the curtain call is a full-cast rendering of “Why do the wrong people travel?” and a dance. So we all leave happy.  


box office 01243 781312   to 12 May

rating three  3 Meece Rating


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It’s a great tapestry of a play: Rodney Ackland’s portrait of a Soho nightclub as WW2 ended. Socialites and slobs, black-marketeers and failing artists, unaccepted homosexuals, decrepit elders , a lonely streetwalker patrolling outside. It is louche and honest, funny and sad, just what the National Theatre should be doing. Not least because few others can: a cast and ensemble of thirty, a multi-storey set by Lizzie Clachan with the ability to send clouds and lumps of plaster down. And all the way through, Joe Hill-Gibbins’ cast populating that big stage: milling and surging, scattering, mobbing, gathering.


All honour to the programme for acknowledging that it was the little Orange Tree theatre which rediscovered this classic, rewritten by an ageing and impoverished Ackland in 1987. For its first outing in 1952 – backed by Rattigan, who lost money over it – was too soon and too strong. Britain wanted a rosier view of the “spirit of ’45’ and the postwar Labour victory. Binkie Beaumont, the great producer, called the play “a libel on the British people”, and that was only the cautious version under the Lord Chamberlain. By the 1980s the elderly Ackland could be more frank about homosexuality. But in real life people knew about that nocturnal underworld, gay or straight: the programme quotes Betjeman’s 1954 poem about an old night-club proprietress -“I’m dying now and done for, What on earth was all the fun for? For I’m old and ill and terrified and tight”.

Yet the play is not depressing, though after three hours of intricate storytelling the hostess – Kate Fleetwood’s brittle Christine – does sit unwillingly alone with a broken gramophone. Honesty, realism and wonderful comic lines keep it going, Hill-Gibbins’ direction and brilliant cast ensure that all the characters – even the most loathsome – are fascinating. At its heart is another marvellous performance from Charles Edwards as Hugh, a failing writer supposedly working at a Ministry but haunting the club every night, promiscuously assenting to GIs who’ll take any “tail” going, and cadging loans. Perhaps off Danny Webb’s prim Austrian Siegfried, who is losing his party-girl Elizabeth (Sinead Matthews, memorable as usual) to a GI. Or from the loathsome, predatorily camp film fixer Maurice , who is stringing him along and leaves reading scripts to his bullied, flouncing secretary Cyril…


The core of both pain and comedy is in Edwards’ babbling, intelligent, fretful desperation, at once Wodehousishly funny and as tragic as anything in Chekhov. After the interval we meet his defecting life- partner Nigel (Prusanna Puwanarajah) who is trying to get married to a rich woman. His neat pinstriped exasperation confronts Edwards’ shambolic shabbiness , in a riveting scene of impossible love. A generation’s pain is in Nigel’s stark reluctant condemnation of “the whole idea of queerness, the whole ambience of boring camp and squalid promiscuity, , nostalgie de la boue and hysterical emotionalism”.


Yet that is only one strand; right across it runs a mood of the time, magnified in this loose-living microcosm. These are WW1 babies, battered by inter-war fast-living and then a second war which came horrifyingly soon. They are rationing their very hope, escaping, doubting the future. Aged Julia in layers of dirty lace looks at the patrolling Fifi and says “if the Socialists get in , we shall all be hounded into Piccadilly to lurk about offering our charms, and all that we are allowed to keep will be five and a half percent. My dear, they’re going to nationalize women”. Hugh has one drunken rant about how the Soviets at least value artists, but doesn’t believe that either. Violent drunk Michael (Lloyd Hutchinson) rants that true artists like him and Hugh shouldn’t have to “expose themselves in canvas or print” because their beauty lies in their own heads ; but in his sleep he dreams he is using a dead man’s hand as a paintbrush.


There are cartoonish moments, but even the crazed Belfast bible-basher Madge has a whiff of deathly darkness . The news of “the horror camps” across the North Sea comes close to the revellers in shocking moments, and the invasion of GIs in animal masks from a party creates a scene out of Hieronymus Bosch. Yet odd harbingers of normality strike in: Hugh’s innocently fussing mother, Doris the housekeeper, decent GI Sam, a neat British officer bringing news of Elizabeth’s German friend. I wish I could name every character and all the cast: there’s not one false note in writing or performance. It is very, very good.

box office box office 020 7452 3333
to 16 June
rating five. 5 Meece Rating

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THE WRITER Almeida, N1



It is a curiosity of the age that young British women seem to be far angrier about The Patriarchy than their mothers , even though law, language, women’s accomplishments, education, and domestic social conventions are infinitely more on their side , and their struggle is far less. None of our ‘60s victories counts: one wrong pass or incautious phrase and they cry outrage. Every global cruelty and disaster from war and capitalism to environmental disaster is men’s fault too – even when a woman sends the bombers, runs the shops or uses the microbead lotions. Odd


In this show the bastards are also in charge of the arts: ruining creative women’s holy myths by mentioning squalid things like the need to sell tickets for the Sacred Space that is Theatre. Ella Hickson’s meta-theatrical play opens with a bracing encounter between a male director (Sam West,) and a truculent, furious young woman (Lara Rossi, brilliant at it) . She has seen a play and informs him that it was unreal,“saying lines..fake hair and new shoes and famous people doing things badly”, that he’s just a “good night out sort of guy” (ugh!) and that old men with flaking skin “tell THEIR truth” and don’t change the world with holy fire. So he offers her a writing commission, but it turns out that when they met before he tried to kiss her, so that invalidates everything, hashtag MeToo !



The patriarchal idea of logical narrative is obviously out of the question, so it jerks on to a quite funny sketch of a panel – adding Romola Garai and Michael Gould to the first two – discussing a work in progress. There’s one great exchange where the elder man sneers that drama can’t be “just one person’s self-involved perspective on their own anguish” and the woman writer replies “Hamlet!”.


Hence to a half-finished playlet (Anna Fleischle’s set nicely built in moments onstage) in which Garai and West are a couple. He (after a quick shag) serves her supper and wishes she would accept a £ 40K film offer for her play. She says it would be like mutilating an unborn child, that she is “broken” in agonizing pain by his love of sofas and Waitrose, and that Picasso didn’t do anything he didn’t want to , so why should she? A real baby is briefly brought on, to prove she doesn’t want one, and next thing we know the set has vanished and she is having an IUD fitted. Which brings on a mythic monologue about being in a tribe with the goddess Semele and having lesbian sex under rippling lighting effects, which is better than the “semi devastated feeling that follows sex with men” because you negotiate your own sameness…
The producer comes on and mutters that though she is frighteningly gifted the play would be better without this “tribal shit” and with an actual ending. So despite her affront (“writers need to be safe”) we move to that ending. Which consists of a ritzier set, the two women eating a takeaway and having sex, once without a huge vivid purple dildo and once with it. Which upsets them, because just as in the end of Animal Farm. the power-game panting of the topmost one means that she has become one of the oppressive pigs. Dicks are evil, see?


I get it. I see why this means to break boundaries and change the world, know why the real male boss-class put it on, and why some uneasy middle-aged men – with and without flaky skin – will give it an approving nod. And the cast are all excellent. But I’m a woman, and a fiction writer, and frankly, if this is feminism and a plea for creativity I am a banana. It speaks only for the narrowest of demographics: a notional angry , unloving, sexually militant mythoholic 24-year-old riddled with humourless artistic vanity and self-pity. That Ella Hickson gives her male characters occasional sharp funny lines to puncture this monstrous kid’s balloon is to her credit. But as a play, it is pretty awful.


box office to 26 May
rating two   2 meece rating

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GUESTHOUSE Eastern Angles tour




Nicola Werenowska has certainly found fertile ground for the setting of her play: the decline of English seaside towns (in this case Clacton) from the first flashback to 1963 up to today. They suffer still from that decay: the rise of foreign package tours, the closure of a Butlins and the general disillusion with bucket-and-spade-b&b in our uncertain climate. Her designer Anna Kelsey has also found – and protects on a simple curtain – some very evocative images of these towns’ brighter past. At times you can almost taste the candyfloss and Kia-Ora.



The story, told partly in flashbacks, is about decisions on a failing boarding-house’s future by three generations of women: the doughty Val (Amanda Bellamy), her troubled nervy daughter Lisa (Clare Humphrey) and Lisa’s daughter Chloe. Who, we find, was largely raised by Granny Val and her drunken, disappointed husband whose end we only gradually learn, but suspect for quite a lot of the 2-hour evening.


All three performances are fine, nuanced and credible, and Eleanor Jackson’s sulky, resentful Chloe is particularly good: a scowl to remember. The sense of mother and daughter competing for the child in the past is a strong thread. All that is on the side of the play, and I wanted to love it but despite Tony Casement’s direction and the neat little set , there is something woefully untheatrical about it: it might as well be a radio play. Werenowska also lacks the comic lightness for which one yearns. Given a Val as skilful as Bellamy, playing a stubborn old pragmatist, one hungers for the salty seaside wit of her generation. But we never get it. There is a sense, notably from Clare Humphrey, of the sheer slog of running a b & b, and of the way the family all to some extent cling to it as part of their identity. But few lines stick, and few hit home, for all the cast’s efforts. Its themes will be recognized, though, in many of the places the tour visits..


box office http://www.easternangles to June
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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TONIGHT AT 8.30 Jermyn ST SW1

Part 1: SECRET HEARTS (and an explanation)


This is a fabulously quixotic enterprise directed by Tom Littler: a revival of all nine of Noel Coward’s one-act plays, written in 1935 as a showcase for the diverse talents of Gertrude Lawrence and his goodself, under the title Tonight At 830 . Littler has grouped them in three sets, which you may see on consecutive nights or – as I did – take in all of them on a Saturday or Sunday: thus from the 1930s to the Netflix generation comes a prototype binge-watch.


Littler’s pattern (the grouping and names are his, not Coward’s) gives each set two lighter ones before the interval and something more poignant (but still with its laughs, believe me) after it. The ensemble of nine players switch throughout, as in old rep companies, and there is something fascinating about seeing them change between these squibs, sympathizing with the way one is in and out of Brylcreem , or startled when you fail for a moment to recognize that the red-nosed northern comedian is the same chap as the timid Malayan planter.


From this first set SECRET HEARTS – it doesn’t matter how you see them, but on Sunday it was first off – it is clear from the start that these are all good sharp comedy performers but with a capacity when needed to evoke profound pain: Miranda Foster and Nick Waring are Alec and Laura in Still Life, on which Brief Encounter was based. . But in the main what we get is tophole character-acting. So Jeremy Rose’s debonair old matinee-idol Julian becomes red-nosed comic George Pepper and then a passing soldier in Still LIfe, while Foster’s grande-dame diva turns faded music-hall sketch-actress and then the respectable smalltown housewife Laura suffering in the station buffet . Rosemary Ashe is a diamond-clipped veteran backstage in Star Chamber, a gloriously vulgar Lily Pepper and then an extreme of refinement behind that buffet counter..



Which all adds to the fun. So to the plays in detail: I had never seen STAR CHAMBER – few moderns have, and in the 30s it only ran once, apparently – , but it is pure essence of Noel: an unashamedly self-indulgent mickey-take of actors’ ways , as eight variously appalling self-absorbed thesps sit on a fundraising committee frustrating a timid accountant’s attempt to read the financial report. In this cast one first notes that the newest-fledged, young Boadicea Ricketts, is a proper gem . Her gloriously ghastly ich-bin-zo ingenue would have pleased Coward no end, passing the Worthington test but unlikely to be bearable for long in a greenroom.


Then RED PEPPERS (framed with the deathless “has anybody seen our ship”) reminds us of something which deepens through the ninesome: that Stefan Bednarczyk is a very good character actor as well as the current king of cabaret and musical director. By the time we get to STILL LIFE, he is an Albert Godby to match Stanley Holloway himself.


Actually, of all the three STILL LIFE is the revelation: it is far tighter, and in the end move dryly perceptive about love affairs, than the film Brief Encounter. For one thing it moves faster: not a word wasted, no need for other sets, and the couple do, unlike their film versions, consummate their love. And having the buffet and station staff in view all the time, rather than cut-away to, displays Coward’s rueful talent for counterpoint, comedy amid sorrow. Myrtle and Albert’s growing closeness (and implied consummation) is funny, but less cartoonish. And I had never noticed before how Beryl and Stanley, the teenage skivvies, have their fifteen precious minutes of snogging sabotaged by the middle-aged adulterers’ self-absorbed insistence on hanging about in the darkened buffet so Beryl can’t lock up. Tart, knowing, real, unromantic. Beautiful.
And so, rejoicing, on to the next three…



One of the pleasures for an amateur Cowardologist is spotting echoes and pre-echoes of other plays; and not least marvelling at the Master’s particular gift for sending up situations in one play which he takes with painful seriousness in another. In this case the first – WE WERE DANCING – sends up the coup-de-foudre love at first sight. We are with Colonial-Naval-Mercantile Brits of the stiffupperlip classes on a fictional South Sea Island. Think Somerset Maugham rewritten for Round the Horne: very Charles-and-Fiona. Sara Crowe, an actress who can be heart-wrenchingly innocent but also very funny indeed, has fallen for Karl, a passing agent, in two minutes of dancing. They go through the full this-thing-is-bigger-than-both-of-us routine, to the irritation of her stiff husband (Nick Waring, channelling all that RN rigidity Coward both loved and guyed). Rosemary Ashe, another glorious comedienne, is a furiously snappish sister-in-law, and the divine Bednarczyk a treasurable drunk. Passion flares and collapses at Hay Fever speed.


WAYS AND MEANS is slyer, without music (a fair few of these squibs include a song) and finds Miranda Foster and Nick Waring a couple again, but many miles from the earnest doctor and housewife of Still Life. They’re spongers in a Cote d’Azur villa, of a class “brought up to be merely pleasant”, and now being thrown out by a sweetly steely hostess (Crowe again) to make room for the next guest . They’re flat broke owing to the Casino, and resentful of richer guests ( Ricketts this time a predatory Russian princess) Nice exasperated coupledom gives way to mild panic, and then an opportunistic piece of dastardliness, rather P.G.Wodehouse in a way, which one can only applaud.


The bed is changed (there is in each set of plays a elegantly deliberate and funny use of the fact that we watch the stage crew, especially where there is no interval, and Louie Whitemore’s set and Emily Stuart’s costumes are quite brilliant in their detail.) So at last the more problematic SHADOW PLAY ends the trio. I found it the weakest: Crowe this time is a betrayed wife, her husband asking for divorce (or so she fears). She is sinking into sleep with three pills and carried back – with more of those plaintively mawkish Coward love songs than elsewhere – into a tangled set of flashback dreams and memories of their ectstatic, if heavily clichéd, courtship and Venetian honeymoon. It is ahead of its time, indeed I felt as if Coward would rather it was a film, and somehow it failed to engage. But in fairness I should say that two of my companions on the long day were intrigued and pleased by it.



Three drawing-rooms in this set. The first FAMILY ALBUM sees a splendily stiff Victorian 1860s family group of five adult siblings , three of their spouses, and Bednarczyk as a magnificently decrepit and selectively deaf old family butler. They are all in deep old-fashioned mourning, most spectacularly Sara Crowe as the ageing, creaking, resentful Lavinia in half an acre of what must be that legendary fabric, black bombazine. Fuelled by sherry and Madeira they mourn the dead patriarch, who we rather suspect early on (and know later) was a bastard. Coward enjoys a bit of stiff retro naval chat about muzzle-loaders, and gradually the Victorian-photo stiffness of the group dissolves into first contumely, then childhood nostalgia as an old trunk is opened, and finally to creaking Lavinia’s drop-dead revelation and a butler moment to cherish in memory forever. It is a very funny one, this, but with streaks of real pain once more. Chekhov is never far from the edges of your mind in these plays, even when PG Wodehouse is nearer the centre…


HANDS ACROSS THE SEA, which follows it, suddenly reminds you in turn that Coward is also a literary ancestor of Ayckbourn. Another navy household, still recognizable today if you mix at all with the brisk, upper-middle professional Services and jolly-hockeysticks classes. Lady Maureen – “Piggie”, blithely entitled and carelessly, cruelly friendly, has been on a world trip and vaguely invited various Rawlinsons, or possibly Wadhursts, from Malaya. A couple turn up, amid a domestic-professional-social bustle of escaping officer husbands and a hilariously stage-stealing, booming, barking Rosemary Ashe as Piggie’s mate the Hon. Clare. The visitors are the wrong couple. They are terrified, cowed, and polite (Ian Hallard back in the Brylcreem). We get some of the best one-sided phone conversations on any stage ever, and Boadicea Ricketts as the most intimidatingly smug of parlourmaids. One wipes sweat from one’s brow, identifying with the timid planters and reflecting that there actually still are upper-middle households as terrifying as this to visit. Gorgeous.


THE ASTONISHED HEART is pure, overwrought romantic Coward, returning to the coup-de-foudre of Still Life mingled with a grimmer version of the the impossible relationship of Private Lives, and ending in real darkness. Nick Waring is a psychiatrist, his wife (Miranda Foster) struggling with honourable generosity, shows us a moving Coward attempt to rewrite the conventions of infidelity and pain. She wants to contain and understand the humanity of his sudden affair with her predatory, confused friend (Sara Crowe). The title is taken from Deuteronomy: “The LORD shall smite you with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart”. It is very moving.


The whole enterprise, in the tiny Jermyn Theatre, has involved weeks of intricate work, feats of learning astonishing even for actors , 89 costumes, brilliantly devised by Emily Stuart, and some items of furniture which must be making backstage a bit of an ordeal. And was it worth it? Oh yes.


Box office 0207 287 2875 to 20 May
rating four 4 Meece Rating

with an extra Stage Management Mouse for the crew   Stage Management Mouse resized
and Costume Mouse for the design and the rapid changes..

Costume design mouse resized



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THE MODERATE SOPRANO returns; Duke of York’s , WC1




  I could tell you that it is worth going up West for the transfer of Hampstead’s fine play just to see Roger Allam (his fine quiff sadly suppressed under a bald wig) as John Christie, founder-owner of Glyndebourne’s opera house on the Sussex Downs, issuing one particular indignant horrified nod at the word “Mozart”.  The resulting explosion – absorbed with sphinx-like placidity by his German-Austrian musical hirelings    is one to cherish.  Christie, a small determined almost P.G.Wodehouse character,  has tasted the sublime in Wagner’s great unwieldy Parsifal.  So he finds Mozart “samey..bit jngly…no sense of the spirituaul..intrigue, silly girls and giggling and big wigs… it’s like playing cricket with a soft ball”. 



      I loved it at Hampstead,  found it a  “ heart-soaring, joyful and sad and humane piece” ,  its vindication of the picnic-rug and black-tie world of high class opera ws gorgeously unexpected from David Hare.   It was after he dramatized his jaundiced memories of a constipated 1962 public-school in  “South Downs” that the producer, Byam Shaw, suggested he take on the story of how John Christie, an eccentric wartime soldier and Eton science master, inherited the estate in the early ‘30s and decided to build an opera house and a festival. 



     The “moderate soprano” of the title is his wife, the singer Audrey Mildmay, who Christie  besieged with gifts and flowers until she married him: he was already fifty.   She died before him, leaving him bereft: her decline, and his nursing, book-end the play.     For the festival seasons he recruited Rudolf Bing, Fritz Busch and Carl Ebert: its a memory-play of the interaction of those five determined characters.  



      Sometimes  it is very funny, at times profoundly sad.  For what Hare makes of John Christie’s story is not “heritage theatre” but a hymn to art and its ambiguities, an elegy for the  passing of life  and a portrait of a man self-willed,  choleric, impassioned.  Sometimes Captain Mainwaring, sometimes almost Eric Morecambe,  he is absurd but awe-inspiring,  a “character’ but also a deep and needy personality.    Roger Allam  is perfection: chubbed-up, in a bald wig, he becomes the bluff reckless middle-aged soldier who one night in Bayreuth discovered “the sublime – until I heard that music I had no idea who I was”.   Line upon line he delights:  “Hate music-lovers, awful people, do nothing but complain – but I love music!”. 



 With his team assembled and the first season coming,  Christie reacts with explosive horror to Bing and Busch telling him it can’t be Wagner – “you’ve built a jewel box, not an epic theatre”.    As for his furious insistence that opera-goers must wear boiled shirts and get on a train to  deep Sussex on a working day, it is superb, and nobody could deliver it like Allam.  These damn people  must, he says, not just fiddle around with “ telephones and whatever they do in offices” then ‘take in a show’.  They must accept “It’s their lives that are the sideshow!  Opera’s the thing! And if it uses up their time and wipes out their savings so be it!”.     

       Nancy Carroll is a perfect foil as Audrey, sinking her identity and her art in his explosive will, loving him,  her postwar decline tragic.  Paul Jesson and Anthony Calf react wonderfully as Busch and Ebert, and  this time round Jacob Fortune-Lloyd is a sinuous,  sardonic Viennese smoothie Rudolf Bing, the maestro who spent  war years working in Peter Jones, enjoying the hair salon because its febrile atmosphere was most like opera – “I love hysteria…Nietzsche said, for art there must be frenzy”.  


      The frenzy of a tubby, determined man with a yearning for sublimity receives, in this lovely play, the respect that it should.  And on a second viewing, with the same reservation as at Hampstead – which is simply about a slightly too slow first half –  other thoughts occur.  The elegiac quality seems stronger: Audrey’s last moments, and his late sadness, are truly wrenching.   And it makes sense at last that David Hare, never knowingly under-socialist, should have written it.  Art has no politics, and while opera  needs the money of the rich,  it is in essence not upper-class:   just sublimely human.

box office  0844 871 7627

to 30 June

rating four    4 Meece Rating

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BAT OUT OF HELL Dominion, W1



     In a remarkably quick return after its Coliseum outing , Jim Steinman’s barmy musical is storming onto the Tottenham Court Road, rocking on.  Few cast changes – we still have the rockstarry Polec, a fair curly-headed manic figure  looking like Fotherington-Thomas gone to the dark side,   and Christina Bennington as the rebellious Raven;  we still  the choreography by Emma Portner and the rowdy, explosive, shape-shifting set by Jon Bausor.   And it’s even louder than at the Coliseum.

      I still love it.  I stand by my earlier review here – on a very hot summer night I still offer it my throat, as per wolf.

Even though chaos on the trains on press night  meant I had to flee before the second half…


     But it has been brought to my notice that some critical voices I respect really don’t like it.  So here are a few reasons I do..

  • Because Rob Fowler and Sharon Sexton are hilarious as the heroine’s parents , first in their furious “Who needs the Young” song,  then unforgettably in the onstage Cadillac rendering of “Paradise by Dashboard light”.  Surely you gotta love a youthy rock gig where the middle-aged steal the scene?
  • Because Danielle Steers delivers : “I won’t do that”  in something approximating a solid gold blues baritone
  • Because of the bit where the motorbike explodes
  • Because Jim Steinman’s lyrics are among the best expressions of rock’n’roll rebellion ever written,  while managing to be ironic with it
  • Because of the ensemble movement.   Wild yet daft.
  • And the plot:   plain daft, based on Peter Pan while remaining the least J.M.Barrie show imaginable
  • Because come on –  if you’re going to do a ridiculous jukebox musical,  the city which has embraced the vapidly ghastly Mamma Mia for years on end deserves a better break.  

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TITANIC  THE MUSICAL              Mayflower, Southampton and touring



         At twenty to midnight, 106 years to the day after the collision,  an audience gathered in this big theatre to mark and remember the disaster.    All credit to cast and crew for doing a full production ending at 0230, its last curtain call followed by a sober minute’s silence for the seafaring city.  Cast and audience together stood facing  the memorial to the 1500 people, passengers and (mainly local) working crew, who died that night.     It was a genuinely and gently moving moment.



    So after the fascinating Shadow Factory , Southampton gets a second theatrical take on its history with the touring revival of Thom Southerland’s marvellous production of Moury Yeston’s musical..  It could hardly have a more resonant launch than this midnight performance on Saturday.   I admired the show two years ago at the little Charing Cross Theatre,  surprised at the modesty of its outing (it won Tonys in the US).   Now in the big Mayflower, with an expanded but still simple version of David Woodhead’s two-level, white-railinged set and a slightly bigger ensemble,  it more than fills the space and emotion of the moment.


           I wrote at the time “Stirring, decent, strong”, and that still applies.  Yeston uses the human power of a chorale,  and Peter Stone’s book wisely keeps the devised personal stories – aspirational, ambitious, ambiguous – brief and impressionistic.  The choruses intensify the awareness  that all classes, roles and responsibilities were,  literally,   in the same boat.   There is a fidelity to the period’s Edwardian style, and also to its vaulting ambition and belief in a new world of engineering and opportunity, and to the simple fact that on a sea voyage however firm the class distinctions every individual has a right to hopes and dreams.



      The pride and astonishment of creating “the biggest moving object on earth” is shared, from the scuttling stewards loading 1100lb of marmalade and countless potatoes,  to the sixty-shilling Irish in third class dreaming of grander lives in the US, the aspirational second-class Alice (Claire Machin, again) determined to stand next to an Astor or Guggenheim if it kills her, the first-class passengers who are also given their humanity, and the labouring stokers in the engine-room.    Philip Rham again is the Captain, and  Greg Castiglioni takes over as the designer Andrews from Harland and Wolf ,  passionately scribbling bulkhead changes which might have saved them, even as he knows it is the end.    Simon Green is the arrogant, legend-chasing Ismay from White Star, urging reckless speed, nagging the Captain, never admitting his share of the blame.


         Some arias stand out intensely, like the wireless-operator’s hymn to the magical new connection which could have saved them; but it is the choruses,  the swirling strings under Mark Aspinall’s direction  and the simple honesty of the whole cast’s  performances  that create – unforgettably on that late night performance – a sense of taking part in what is as much a meditation as a drama.    Catch the tour if you can.  

box office 02380 711811  to 21st

touring :   to August.   Touring Mouse wide

rating Five  5 Meece Rating


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We begin with a tiny proscenium box, an almost Punch-and-Judy window, framing Harry and his wife Max: nice middle-aged people, evoked to sitcom perfection by a bearded, tinkeringly-engineerish Mark Bonnar and a bright Jane Horrocks. They are ordering a DIY kit for Prime next-day delivery, and starting to fuss over it. Meanwhile neighbours at a dinner party boast of their Oxford daughter and brilliant younger siblings. We gather that Max and Harry had one son, Nick. And what to him happened could be – well, could happen to anyone. Neighbour’s brilliant daughter was sorry to miss the funeral.


So far, so middle-class observational. But the first bit of the kit completed, as they prattle on, is a foot. Then a leg.. We guess that the little screen will widen, and widen again, and so does the significance of this arresting, original sci-fi domestic tale. They are building a robot, specification “white and polite”. A young man. It keeps them busy. It looks, the uneasy neighours notice, rather like the late Nick. Indeed it and Nick are both played by Brian Vernel, who in a series of flashbacks shows us how the living boy ran off the rails, stole to buy drugs, ran away…


The robot will give no such trouble, though for a while it is both creepy and funny as the couple struggle to programme it to their values, nervously zapping the remote to correct “his”’ attitudes and language. Young Vernel is quite superb, an arresting and technically intensely skilful performer zapping in and out of malfunction as the robot and teenage rebellion as Nick,  often confusing us into thinking Nick reformed before he died (“I’m gonna do it this time Mum”) , until a malfunction reveals it as a delusion programmed by the sad parents. Hilariously he flicks between speaking as an ideal, ambitious, nice-minded perfect son and a complete horror picked up from trash TV, as the parents dive for the remote-control. Sometimes there is an eerie sense that the robot’s AI is picking up the resentments each partner has against the other over the dead son.


Yet it is a profoundly compassionate, intelligent, heartbreaking play: about parenthood and grief, self-delusion, and the commodification and competitiveness surrounding the idea of an ideal family (Horrocks is happiest when her son seems to be enjoying ironing) . It is about the unintentional wrongs we all do, the terrible sorrow of love, the dogged need to carry on and seem cosy after a climactic disaster, and the painful empty-nest longing to have young hopeful life around the house.


It is terrific, and a delight to see the development of Thomas Eccleshare (I loved his PASTORAL at Hightide years ago). Vernel is a talent to watch, and Hamish PIrie’s direction is sharp and sure-footed, handling the deliberate confusions well. It does not need the interludes of robotic, stylized ensemble movement between scenes, which feel as if Pirie thinks we’re too dim to grasp the idea. But that is the tiniest of flaws in the most thoughtful sci-fi since THE NETHER.


box office 0207 565 5000

Rating: five  5 Meece Rating


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CHICAGO Phoenix, WC2




    Openings are running in themed  sets – three Restoration comedies coming along like No.11 buses, and now  two nights running we have  trials as showbiz and showbiz ending in court.  After the neon ITV world of QUIZ , comes the unmatchable razzle-dazzle of Kander  and Ebb’s 1975 shocker,  under its Broadway director and with Anne Reinking and Gary Chryst giving it a loving update of that jerky, threateningly exhilarating Bob Fosse choreography.  Here are the murderous snarls and artful smiles,  supple cynicism on endless sheer  black-stockinged legs, and a hot hot band. Which lives as usual onstage, 1920’s jazz culture itself a character in the telling of the story of Roxie, Velma and the merry murderesses of Cook County , competing for the flourish and finagle of Billy Flynn the lawyer…



This time round our Billy is the Oscar-winning Cuba Gooding Jr, no less, looking happy as a sandboy on the West End stage.  He’s a workaday basic singer but that doesn’t matter when you’re  a slinky mover,  delivering deadpan comic contempt,  and always an exuberant stage presence  whether smothered in fan-dancers or giving ‘em the old razzle dazzle in a rain of sparkles.   Paul Rider is the best Amos I have ever seen:  his Mr Cellophane  brings the house down in that slyly calculated momentary quietening of pace:  Mr Decent Ordinary Sap lost in the predominant whirl of perfect limbs,  stumping bravely puzzled in contrast to that graceful subversive sexy grotesquery of dances which you never forget.



      The  London cast is glorious:  Sarah Soetaert as Roxie Is a curly blonde doll, a platinum minx vith a voice of honey : Josefina Gabrielle Velma Kelly , venomously acrobatic (O,the cartwheels!).  Our own Ruthie Henshall is a svelte, sharp -suitedly new interpretation of  Mama Morton  (she’s played  both Roxie and Velma in the past, a record triple).  Her voice is glorious, and mingling with Gabrielle’s in the fabulous “Nobody’s got no class” moment, a proper treat. Others get their moment too, notably Nicola Coates as Go-to-hell-Kitty doing an impressive banister slide. Indeed all the movement is well thought of, down to the single drunk juror who manages to feel up both Billy Flynn and Roxie. 


     Oh, and cheers to every last member of the band under Ian Townsend, hitting show-off solos and pumping ensembles with authentic jazzman glee.      to 6 october

rating  five5 Meece Rating

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QUIZ Noel Coward Theatre, WC1




Sometimes a West End transfer serves a play royally. At Chichester last year I enjoyed James Graham’s playful, thoughtfully mischievous treatment of the case of Major Charles Ingram, his wife Diana and the geeky Tecwen Whittock: the trio convicted of cheating-by-cough-code on ITV’s triumphantly tacky quiz Who Wants to Be A Millionaire. But some overdone pub-quizzery in the first half slowed it down (we have to answer questions like a studio audience, and vitally get to vote electronically at the end on their guilt). And I only gave it four. Here’s the original review, with the bones of it:

But now in the West End it’s actually better, a real five-star piece. With some audience seats onstage and a hellish neon TV studio set, it makes a great gig: continually entertaining, with a shape-shifting cast conjuring up barristers, ITV executives and every popular hero from Hilda Ogden to Craig David, led by Keir Charles becoming bygone peaktime horrors like Jim Bowen, Leslie Crowther and Des O”Connor. And who is frankly and joyfully beyond-wicked as Chris Tarrant the host – mugging and squirming, a blond writhe of showy self-importance.

It has been tightened a bit, with the result that the two central characters, once more Gavin Spokes and Stephanie Street, emerge still clearer . Spokes is a marvel as Ingram, James Graham’s delicate writing establishing him from the start as a bit bumbling, a dutiful middle-aged military chap who cares for his job and his family; Street evokes quiz-mad Diana in her .restless but kindly ambition (this is a service wife, remember: hampered by a lifetime of moves and postings and absences and economies). Their love story, a stick-to-it marriage, is a tribute; if they ever see the show, I cannot see them minding much.


And Graham’s serious points emerge still clearer too: the rise of “emo-tainment”, the class-conscious manipulation of the masses for profit, and above all the age – then evolving as the century turned, now extreme – of nosey, lipsmacking knee-jerk judgment of strangers: the age of Twitterstorms and whining, hostile identity-politics. Though you laugh aloud every few minutes, it’s a damn serious piece.


And yes, once again the audience voted guilty after the first act, paid attention to a fiery performance by Sarah Woodward as the defence barrister in the second – and voted not guilty. We chose to believe the hapless Ingrams over a vindictive and seemingly manipulative TV company. Apparently that happens most nights. Good.


box office 0844 482 5140
rating five  5 Meece Rating

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CATHY Soho Theatre and touring


Homeless charities like to remind us of the mantra: we are all just two bad decisions away from the pavement. The trajectory of our heroine Cathy’s decline is carefully drawn. A zero-hours contract as a cleaner keeps her short of money, rent arrears build up. The owners of the building want to take away her home of ten years anyway, at 14 days notice, so as to rent or sell it to “young professionals”. Affordable private rents are beyond her and the arrears put her at risk of being “voluntarily homeless”. But she has a dependent daughter, Danielle, moving towards her GCSEs, so the Council must help. It does so by sending them to a temporary b & b room in a grubby tower in Luton,. Danielle has to spend £20 a week and on trains in to school and get bullied as a “pikey” by local girls. Cathy has to find another lavatory-cleaning job.



The “temporary” placement stretches to months, until an offer of a 2-bed maisonette comes through. In Gateshead. Cathy panics: when you have very little, your neighbourhood and community are precious, and what about Danielle’s exams next month?. She is told it could be seven years before East London finds her home again. The mechanical, helpless council responses “this is our offer” and “You are at liberty to arrange an alternative” are a blank wall. Sofa-surfing with a sister in Braintree ends sharply; she is now 497th on a list, and fears contact with the Council as Danielle could be taken into care. So to the streets, the night buses, a desperate pick-up, a refuge.



Fifty years after Cathy Come Home, Ken Loach’s impassioned film about homelessness, the anniversary was marked by the campaigning theatre group Cardboard Citizens with this play, a fictional demonstration – with occasional verbatim recordings – of how clunkingly hopeless our public housing system is. And how woefully underresourced. Two years on, after the horror of Grenfell it returns for an eight week tour. Which is a particularly bitter irony, since if you think about it the council tenants in Grenfell flats were luckier than Cathy: they had flats. The piece has been played f at the House of Lords, where a series of audience suggestions for palliative laws were handed over. Audiences are asked for solutions, public and personal. It is a moving, unsentimental moment.



The strength of Ali Taylor’s play, directed by Adrian Jackson, is that there is enough credible, flawed, troublesome humanity in it to convince. Cathy Owen as the central figure is decent, hardworking, and at first just unlucky, but the streak of stubbornness which keeps her going contributes to her downfall. Ironically, the things which accelerate her fall (apart from lousy national housing policy) are “bad decisions” which might in a wealthier woman be praised as good feisty qualities. She has refused to try and make her estranged gambling ex-husband contribute, and keeps her daughter away from him; she visits her old Dad once a week, backs her daughter’s education with pride, and cherishes her community. Hence the horror at the blank-wall Gateshead offer.



As Danielle, Hayley Wareham is heartbreakingly true to teenage temperament and desperation. as her path to upward social mobility is blocked by the struggle even to get to school; Amy Loughton plays a series of council officers, a Latvian fellow-cleaner, and most movingly a kind Arriva lady at the bus station who lets Cathy use her phone , gives her tea and accepts the night-bus sleepers with gentle resignation. Alex Jones is the men: horribly chirpy rent collector, hopeless father, bullying supervisor.
It is set brilliantly against a set of giant Jenga blocks – which of course look like a council building and which get gradually demolished as Cathy’s life is. It reminds us how sharply urgent is the public housing crisis; but also how crushingly unfair it is, in an age of mass immigration and an overcrowded capital, to disregard the needs of the old white working-class. Needs not only for roofs and safe beds, but for a known neighbourhood and extended family.

It will be a great day when this play no longer needs to tour. But for the moment, it is an essential.
Soho to 14th April, touring to 5 May
rating four   4 Meece Rating


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INK  FESTIVAL            Halesworth Cut – Tour starting…



  The INK  new writing festival ( is a phenomenon: a space where writers of any experience or none  can submit short plays (most under 15 minutes)   or radio plays or indeed musicals in miniature,   and – this is the important  bit    see their work professionally acted and directed.  As a source of seed-corn for new dramatists, or diversification for existing writers, it is unique. 



       This was its fourth year and undoubtedly its strongest yet:  I saw 18 of  26 plays, and left only one with a shrug.  It now gets hundreds of submissions, and its artistic direction led by Julia Sowerbutts (who has previously transferred productions to the Pleasance) manages to avoid the dour “new-writing” trap of issue-led portentous doominess,  without shying away from tough or shocking subjects when they are well handled.


    So cheers to INK 2018:  and here’s to its short  tour of a few picked plays, starting next week.  I’d want, though, to give other hon. mentions to several not on the tour:  not least Martha Loader’s  angry HUMBUG, a skilful crescendo from banality to rage, and a mischievous BLOOD PRESSURE by Jan Etherington in which  an A&E patient demanding a transfusion turns out to be a 147-year-old vampire too diffident about intimacy to get his blood the proper way.  Bien imaginé, as the French say. 


       As to the tour , it is led by The Inkredible Five,   brief six-minute plays by local known writers Sowerbutts challenged to write around a pile of antique suitcases.  Full disclosure: I am one, but frankly wholly eclipsed in anyone’s terms by squibs like Richard Curtis’  furious diva being misdirected through Evita, and Blake Morrison’s Cold War spooks trying to exchange suitcases.   To complete the set there’s a poignant Esther Freud piece, and Steve Waters (who wrote the wonderful Temple for the Donmar)  with a strange epiphany at port security.   


       But the real meat is in the longer, 15-minute or so,  submissions.   Madeleine Accalia’s WHITE GIRLS is stunning: clever, nuanced , moving from social comedy to anger, naïveté to embarrassment,  tones perfectly caught by Molly McGeachin and Amber Muldoon (a young actress who seems to me a serious find).   They are gap- yah daughters of privilege and insouciance, ignorance and goodwill.  But they are relating their trip – so cool in their shades and Timberlands! – to volunteer at the Calais jungle camp. They moan amusedly in the warehouse and kitchens but then are struck by the Glastonbury-turned-Hell that was the camp at its peak, by the children and the danger and the hopelessness and the incomprehensibility of it being in civilized Europe.   With a bare stage and a coat stand, their bouncy confessional becomes well- caught voices of refugees, a braggart Aussie, wearily seasoned helpers, press, instagramming fellow teens, and of course posh Mum at home urging them not to get filthy and grow lesbian armpit hair and vote Corbyn…   Not a word is wasted, not an emotion or observation false.


      Next to it THE KISS by Millie Martin is set in the days when chivalry dictated that a divorcing man hired a private investigator and   faked an encounter with a prostitute : a Labour MP, quivering in distaste, removes his bowler and suit in a hotel room and in an unexpected moment of pure theatrical fantasy the action moves deeper inside the protagonists.  And there’s Ross Dunsmore’s COLD CALL, as a pair of callcentre workers fall out.  Which was sharp and funny enough to make me recant mygrumpy middle-aged fatwa on  plays about doomed romances between whining millennials.   

      So there it is: some of these are plays that could grow to full length; some are just perfect as they are, like short stories or really good songs.  The world should pay attention to INK.   

 Touring East Anglia 12-22 April

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It’s suddenly a wig-and-fan season, with Mrs Rich at the RSC and now Congreve’s sour, witty classic revived by James MacDonald. There’s even The Country Wife at the Southwark (though apparently fan-free, will report next week). Maybe we need the high-society rogues , dupes and posers of Restoration comedy to distract us from our own set.
This is a full period-dress production, executed immaculately but probably needing another few cuts to be unalloyed joy. The plot is labyrinthine, with a wordy torrent of finely honed wit and derision, fuelled by greed more than love. Congreve is the angriest of the Restoration dramatists. While the lovers, Mirabell and Millamant, end by both admitting their love and winning one another, there can be an Arctic chill of cynical despair at human nature. Knaves and fools, gulls and grabbers are everywhere, adulteries and insincerities part of the game. And to be honest, some of the witticisms have dated too much to resonate in an age without formal manners.



So the first part at 90 minutes, can occasionally drag and baffle, though alleviated by the truly astonishing costumes. Here’s Witwould in a crazy floral coat: Fisayo Akinade, lately St Joan’s camp Dauphin here thoroughly releasing his inner camp dandy ;he is the funniest thing in Act 1 by far. Here’s Millamant in pistachio frills like a giant toilet-roll cover, and of course the men with tumbling hair fabulously breeched , weskited and braided in their gilt frock coatings. Except of course for Christian Patterson giving it large in check tweeds as the drunken squire Sir Wilful.



And of course there’s Haydn Gwynne as Lady Wishfort: controller of the money and marital permissions they’re all after but not of her own plaintive ageing desires. This magnificent, towering figure evolves from a mirror-fearing deshabilée in a dressing gown to a glorious spectacle , beflowered, frilled, netted, petticoated , bustled and topped with half a rose-garden. We do not see her for the first fifty minutes, but just as we grow a little weary of the dandies and plotters and disentangling which discontented belle is sleeping with which scheming beau, Gwynne breaks on us like a tsunami. Hard to remember that she was a late booking after a drop-out: she is born for it, magnificent, tall and angular and quivering with eagerness and vanity; nicely contrasted with a brisk Sarah Hadland as the motherly little Foible as her foil ,dresser and secret member of the conspiracy to cheat her.




The great set-piece where Wishfort tries to decide how to be found lolling when her “lover” arrives will never date – “nothing is so alluring as a levée from a couch in some confusion”. Equally grand is her encounter with the fake “Sir Rowland” – Alex Beckett with a faux posh accent and tragedian manner, the impression of Primark-sale Olivier reinforced by the black wig. The scene is both very funny and touched, as it must be, with pathos – Wishfort is, after all, only silly and lonely for love, not an out and out bastard like Fainall, or an opportunist like Geoffrey Streatfeild’s complicated Mirabell.


As for the lovers, Streatfeild and Justine Mitchell’s brittle, damaged, confined Millamant lay down their conditions about marriage and “dwindling into a wife” with enough sudden seriousness to hold us silent between laughs. And the final showdown at last lets us properly feel for them, and for Wishfort and indeed Foible. But goodness, it is a harsh comedy still. Which is, I suppose, its greatness.



box office 0203 282 3808 to 26 may
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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A pre-curtain ensemble  of one harpsichord and a quartet of periwigged lady saxophonists, playing Mozart with a touch of oompah, is always a good sign. The RSC’s Artistic Director Gregory Doran has a kindly sense of balance, so the dourly modern, blokey, bleak and inevitably joyless Macbeth just down the corridor is offset by this merry bit of Restoration fluff and female scorn, by the largely forgotten 17c writer Mary Pix. Good move, Mr D. Bring on the ridiculous crinolines, insane wigs, good-natured romantic cynicism, absurd fights and outrageous social caricature . Add a pair of huge hairy lurchers lunging for a sniff of the front row (British audiences always smell faintly of dog-biscuits) . And there you are. Fun.



Pix’s play is intensely and typically complicated: in brief, it centres on the ambition of Mrs Rich, a banker’s widow, played with endearing gusto by Sophie Stanton as a prototype Hyacinth Bucket with a dash of Mrs Slocombe. She is desperate to be one of The Quality, having in the opening scene arrived with her crinoline askew after being “disrespected in the open street” by a passing duchess, even though “I spoke with the mien and tone proportionable to my équipage”.  Her staid grey brother in law (Michael Simkins keeping a nobly straight face) entreats her not to make a fool of herself , while she dreams of netting a title – the absurdly fey, pink-pantalooned and curlicued Sir John – and gets cheated at cards by her posher friends. Notably Lady Trickwell : Sandy Foster, who manages to distort her fine features throughout into a constant sourly discontented snoot, and in the second act hurls herself into some unexpected sword-fighting in ballooning underdrawers.



Plot and subplot intertwine: the maid Betty conspires with Lady Landsworth (Daisy Badger) in series of ill-advised tests of virtue on a disinherited yet virtuous lad whose elder brother is a rumbustious squire from Yorkshire, hallooing and singing rude hunting songs with two hairy dogs and an assistant, artfully gender-swopped to be Amanda Hadingue in a tweed skirt and raucous she-baritone. Tangles of deceit and misapprehensions are enhanced by background jokes you might just miss (I love the dust cloud in Mrs Fidget’s flophouse , and the squire drinking out of his saucer).



What director Jo Davies has done, pacing it up , camping along and adding new music-hall style songs by Grant Olding, is to create a perfect showcase for a dozen wonderful stage comediennes: it is a masterclass for fearlessly funny women. The men, a minority for once, are pretty wonderful too , notably Leo Wringer as the appalling squire and Solomon Israel as his brother, both plunging joyfully into the necessary self-parody. Indeed Israel is given, by the wicked pen of Ms Pix, an opportunity to send up every soliloquizing, self-pitying hero of Jacobean tragedy. And a fascinating aspect of the play is how much at home this woman writer , wife of a merchant in the 1690s, was in mocking not only theatre itself but every layer of society: parvenue socialites, starchy bankers, indigent aristocracy, cheating gamesters, hunting gentry, rooming-house landladies . She was up for a lark, was Mary Pix. She’d have no truck with this new idea that women are too sweet and banter-phobic to go on Have I Got News…



box office 0844 800 1110 to 14 June
rating four  4 Meece Rating



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