Monthly Archives: May 2018





The first act of Brian Friel’s great play ends with a shout of “bloody, bloody, bloody marvellous!”. And so it bloody well is, this comic-tragic-historic-philosophical torrent of words, feelings, arguments, tyrannies and fellowship. The shouter of that line, leaping nimbly onto an old deal table, is young Lt George Yolland: an English soldier of 1833, enchanted with what his mission has brought him to. His duty is to rename and Anglicize Irish place-names as part of the ruling nation’s project to make a survey of this wild, ancient, tricky territory. But George is besotted with Ireland’s wild crags and louring skies above the lonely pinpoints of cottage lanterns (Rae Smith designs, perfect). He is pixillated by lovely Maire, by poteen in a teacup and the prospect of a dance that night at a crossroads whose Gaelic name springs from a long-dry well and a drowned man with a deformity, who nobody much remembers… see how bloody marvellous! When Ireland gets hold of a child of cold careful Protestant England, it brings either loathing mistrust or romantic abandon.



I adore this play, revived lately in Leicester and in Sheffield, and Ian Rickson’s production here, free from directorial vanity, does even better by Brian Friel. Whose diary of its creation, reproduced in the programme, should be read by every aspiring playwright as he frets over “what has been lost, diluted, confused, perverted” in finally shaping it. For it is a play of big ideas, skilfully framed in a story of unconsidered long-ago people, subsistence farmers rightly alarmed by the arrival of surveying soldiery, their blood-red coats a warning and a fear (Neil Austin does a threatening miracle with the lighting each time they appear beyond the misty crags. So red…).

The villagers, Seamus O”Hara’s dutiful Manus and his tipsy learned father Hugh, belong to a hedge-school: one of the remarkable enterprises provoked by the occupying power’s laws against Catholics getting educated, hence possibly disobediant. They fed the hunger for poetry and story with classical texts. Ramshackle old Jimmy-Jack, a fabulously trampish Dermot Crowley, reads Greek aloud, thrills at Homer, lusts after Athene (“If you’d a woman like that at home, it’s not stripping the turf bank you’d be thinking of”) and argues against potatoes and in favour of corn from Virgil’s Georgics. Maire comes in from the dairy for her lesson announcing hersel “fatigatissima”; young Bridget and unruly Doalty answer “Adsum!” to Hugh the master, mute Sarah (a touching Michelle Fox) is coaxed into speech by the patient Manus. The ensemble is tight, as if they had lived on that earthy stage together in reality for all their lives. We believe, English though Friel’s text is, that they are speaking Irish even as Hugh , disgusted by the renaming operation, rails against the imprisoning tongue: “English can’t express us” . There’s a lovely unexpected topicality as he politely explains to the redcoat Captain, “ We feel closer to the warm Mediterranean. We tend to overlook your island”. They are all a bit shocked that the English soldiers speak only their own language, so can’t even converse with them in Latin (“Nonne Latino loquitur?”) The scene where the cultured locals suppress hilarity at the sweating, pidgin-English sign language of the English Captain as he tries to explain the concept of a map is priceless. They, “homesick for Athens”, have more solidity and virtue than the soldiery.



Maire more than any of them feels change coming, as indeed it was: potato blight, famine, emigration, Ireland changing and learning new ways (as it still is) for mere survival. She cherishes the one phrasebook sentence Auntie Mary once taught her without meaning. Which is “In Norfolk we besport ourselves around the Maypole”. Her passionate connection across the language barrier with young George is beautifully, economically written. All through, never a line is wasted despite the cascading wordiness of this play, and when George says, dutifully renaming the place-names, we shudder at his thoughtful young recognition that it is “a sort of eviction..”. And so it will be. The second act darkens, yet ends in a rambling, unanswerable, ancient question.

So yes, the play is a marvel, deeper every time you see it . These perfomances serve it to perfection: Ciaran Hinds is a towering, wrecked monument as Hugh, Judith Roddy a poignant, fiery perfection as Maire. And Adetomiwa Edun gives George a shining, enchanting naiveté to remember. It was time the Olivier had an inspiring success again, and this is it. It ought to run longer. It ought to be in cinemas and touring, instead of that awful Macbeth. But there are Travelex £ 15 tickets, so just go.


020 7452 3000 To 11 August
sponsor, Travelex. Rating, five.

5 Meece Rating


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PETER PAN. Open Air, Regents Park

Peter Pan has now flown into every medium possible. He is a play, novel, pantomime, musical, television programme, cartoon and a Kate Bush single. This version, at the leafy, fairy light-twinkly and on this night, bone dry and sunny Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, is another twist. 
Directors Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel have melded World War One and circus. Despite the play being written a full 10 years before Franz Ferdinand took a ride through Sarajevo, the allegory is snug. Neverland is the escape, the idea of adventure and derring-do which Barrie himself peddled during the war, alongside many famous authors, in the War Propaganda Bureau. 
This production opens in a field hospital outside the trenches. Wendy is nurse, soldiers are limping in. Their suffering soon slips into the dream of Neverland. The device may be snug, but this is where the play is weakest. 
Give it ropes, give it flight and fight; that’s where things get cooking. When Sam Angell’s Panto Pan clambers through the window and into this scene, it’s as if someone has dropped a tea tray. Why is it so broad, so camp and so green? I slumped into my squeaky outdoor chair and prepared to lose an evening. But as the sun dipped behind the park, and the spotlights clicked on, things mightily picked up.  Dennis Herdman’s Captain Cook and his catalogue of tunes and gurns had us all chuckling, Tinkerbell (in the hands of the brilliant Elisa de Grey) had grown men cooing and even the Lost boys (who had a strong whiff of mid-morning kids TV) made sense. Cora Kirk as Wendy, (with a corking Hull accent we need to hear more of) was a solid attempt at the kind of generically defiant female lead of a musical, although this wasn’t one. Once everyone accepted it as just a very well-executed panto, things clicked.



The clutter of props, carried from wartime England, were transformed. Hospital beds were fireplaces, islands and boats. Curtains became fish. A briefcase and collection of hankies became a gull. Most importantly, the tick tock tick tock of the crocodile cumulated in a beast made of beady lanterns, a swishing tail of corrugated iron and a snapping jaw of deckchair. The entire evening is owed to puppet designer Rachael Canning. Her creations somewhat save the night from the concept. 
Even when Peter exclaimed that “to die would be a great adventure”, I was thinking pirates and canon, not soldiers and trenches. Which is why the war is nodded to, or when finally the lost boys return to the army uniform they started the night in, it all falls to pieces. They make a serious point; about lives being lost and wasted. But the performances are still loud, the dialogue still basic and cliches abound.
At the end of the war, in what’s described as Barrie’s first and last public appearance, he spoke of the war and of how they had told the “youth, who had to get us out of it, tall tales of what it really is and the clover beds to which it leads.”.
Box Office  0844 826 4242 
rating.  Three.   3 Meece Rating

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It is always a dilemma, for those of us who despise star-ratings as a measuring device, when a 90 minute play seems set fair to earn three, or three-and-a-bit, trundling along amusingly but not life-changing or extremely hilarious, and then zaps you in the last few minutes. With a twist, a reverse-ferret U-turn on the twist, and then a bravura final line which throws doubt on the whole lot.


This pleasing trick is pulled off by Jordi Galceran in a play born in Barcelona and translated by Anne-Garcia Romero with later tweaks, some from the Broadway director BT McNicholl. It’s been in 60 countries in 20 languages. It has struck a note. Which, among other things, cheeringly displays how widely in the corporate working world people fear and despise human-resources psychologists and tricksy interview techniques…


For the setting of the play is a small conference room, against skyscraper windows, in a Fortune 500 company in New York. Four candidates wait for a group interview. It’s a high-powered sales job and they’re all ambitious. Three are men, which just about reflects the 25% presence of women in such posts. Frank, the first arrival, is a rangy, arrogant alpha male (Jonathan Cake), followed by cherubic Carl (Greg McHugh) who happens to know Melanie (Laura Pitt-Pulford) from college days. And there’s Rick (John Gordon Sinclair) who tries to be friendly with the impassive, grumpy Frank and offers Tic-Tacs all round.


But no interviewer comes. Instead, a robotic filing drawer in the corner opens and delivers them “challenges” to test their interaction, role-play, reaction to stress and strategic reasoning. Galceran assures us that all the increasingly preposterous manoeuvres perpetrated by this multinational HR psych department are drawn from life. Though maybe not all at once. Being a serious researcher-critic I took along a friend , a scarred veteran of several companies, Harvard Business School and the Institute of Directors,. With a gulp she assures me this is how it is. Manipulative, often infantile, and profoundly disrespectful of the human workforce .


But it is for that reason often very funny, with spoutings of corporate jargon (“Profit is everything. But people are everything too”) and fine bursts of ill-tempered distrustfulness (Cake is wonderfully aggressive ,with nice comic timing). Pitt-Pulford as the only woman shakes out some of of the sexist prejudices but other more arcane ones start to emerge as bits of personal live are exacted by the challenges. No spoilers, but there’s a lot of lying going on. |And over the whole operation hovers the question as to whether such a company really wants “a good man who looks like a sonofabitch or a sonofabitch who looks like a good man”? Don’t answer that…


After a slight slowing-down it roars forward into U-turns , revelations and one very strong and nicely nasty scene between Cake and Pitt-Pulford. And the fourth mouse, shudderingly pleased to be too much of a rodent even for the corporate world, staggers towards the prize..


box office 0207 378 1713 to 7 july
rating four  4 Meece Rating


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HAMLET                 Shakespeare’s Globe, SE1




Here’s a vulnerable Hamlet:  a lonely lad in proper tearful grief and disappointment at his mother’s remarriage.    A Hamlet who, in feigning madness,  loses his grip for a while on sense and kindness;  whose treatment of Ophelia we can wince at but understand.  Above all it is a Hamlet whose progress through the switchback of grief and anger and self-doubt and superstition and affection is diamond-precise,  driven by the text.  His final brief adult nobility where “readiness is all” is all the more effective for that.  I have seen more spectacular Hamlets and more arresting ones, but few with such intimate, credible accuracy in the arc of his suffering and resolution.



This Hamlet is a woman, Michelle Terry.    Horatio is female too, as is Marcellus, and Laertes is the tiny, sparky Bettrys Jones. On the other hand Ophelia is a man:  Shubham Saraf,  with a delicate and touching  performance but also an uncompromisingly schoolboy short-back-and-sides above the ballgown, standing a head taller than her brother or Hamlet.   Rosencrantz – looking a bit old to be a schoolmate -is a conventionally bearded Pearce Quigley, but Guildenstern is  Nadia Nadarajah , who is Deaf : she communicates with sprightly good humour in BSL -British Sign Language – to which Hamlet responds skilfully and Rosencrantz sometimes translates.



This production is a key moment in Michelle Terry’s new role as Artistic Director of the Globe, after the less than happy departure of Emma Rice. And power to her:  not only kicking off with two plays (often running  on the same day, as yesterday) but using a hefted, identical company for both,  and in the second playing Hamlet.  I call that leading from the front. 



         I missed the As You Like It, in which she took a smaller part. But towards dusk saw Hamlet. Terry has made it clear that in  casting she plans 50:50 gender equality and greater diversity; she also  runs rehearsals more startlingly open to outsiders than most actors have ever known.  The actors,  composer, choreographer,  two directors ( Federay Holmes and Elle While)   and the designer Ellan Parry are equal partners, she says,  and use rehearsal as a “test tube” of experimentation.  With Parry by the way we are instructed to use only the pronoun “they”, though there is only one of they. Fine but confusing: I prefer “xi” myself.. 


           Do not flinch. Gender politics are in the air, women do need a better break in theatre, and there is a place for free thinking collaboration.  As a fine and seasoned actor and scholarly Shakespearean  – but not a director  – Michelle Terry  might as well rattle the cages of the old school “auteur-director”  with a personal vision of  a classic. That, after all, has lately led to a couple of quite tiresome  Macbeths.   But  as an  audience we too are in the experiment and collaboration.  And for all the engagement and skill, for all the leader’s strong Hamlet, the fine blaring trumpets and stellar performances like Helen Schlesinger’s Gertrude,  Colin Hurley’s Ghost  and a wonderful, slyly funny Poloniusn from Richard Katz,   there are moments which jar.  



     For, this  humbly collaborative audience member ventures to say,  it jars when the physical casting and mixed costumes impede the storytelling, slow us down, make the watcher  think “ah, another 21c sensibility there!” rather than feeling the line of the tragedy.    Honestly,  get rid of that bobble hat in the battlement scene, tone down the clown suit sooner,  restrict some of the BSL moments.   We need to be transported and the Globe, with the pulsing energy of the groundlings , can do that better than many.    Interestingly, there was far less interaction with the groundlings than we are used to here, and that matters  ( Terry’s Hamlet is better at it than anyone else. She knows how to Globe-it from earlier performances). 



  And  one should not have to feel sheer relief when the gravedigger is not another modishly diverse gesture but just Colin Hurley again,   curmudgeonly male in  a hi-vis vest, 100% proof traditional as Shakespeare would remember.     Terry does no arms-length skull-work but just  hops into the new-dug muddy grave beside him.  The prince’s memories of Yorick are properly affecting. Moments like that stay with you as strongly as the jerky 21c devices.  May there be many more .


box office 0207 401 9919    

 to 26 aug

rating   three  

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IOLANTHE                   Richmond & Touring




It must be nearly five years since Sasha Regan’s all-male Iolanthe at Wiltons’ caused me to break a lifelong resistance  and enjoy Gilbert & Sullivan.  So – on the far side of Cal McCrystal’s fabulously funny ENO production this year, with the ENO chorus ladies tripping hither and thither with glorious thumps,   it was an act of homage to go back to this revival of the  Regan  boys’-own version as it sets out on its 2018 tour.  It’s tripped down compared to the Coliseum one, of course, with simply a pit pianist  (presumably Richard Baker the musical director) and the simplest of props and sets. 


      And in its cheerful way,   it’s almost as glorious. Once again  Regan frames it as a lads’ adventure in a cluttered attic and wardrobe: they creep on with torches in the dark during the overture,  and fool around with costumes from old trunks.  But one,  sitting intent alone stage left, seems to have found an old score of Iolanthe and got engrossed… It’s a lovely idea, though  I humbly offer one tiny note: in a substantial theatre  – like this one, way bigger than Wiltons –   the audience need a bit more light and a moment to notice that detail.  My companion, new to the production, didn’t see the score moment at all.



       But once the cast get going they’re a joy: more ambitious in dancing than last time (excellent balletic-mimetic movement choreographed by Mark Smith) and vocally strong,  managing the female parts well,  from the prevailing falsetto to a nice counter-tenory soprano from Joe Henry as Phyllis,  an elegant Iolanthe in Christopher Finn  and a remarkable contralto from Richard Russell Edwards’ Fairy Queen.    


The words – vital as ever,  satirically romantic or elegant patter  – are excellently clear and the physicality hilarious. When Russell Edwards asks plaintively about the banished Iolanthe “Who taught me to curl inside a buttercup?” you snort.  When the chorus of willing fairies are decked out in roll-on suspender belts over their rugger shorts,  the maternal heart melts with the memory of all those sleepovers when we let the son’s mates loose in the dressing-up box.  


    As for the Lords,  dressing-gowns, the odd crochet blanket and forgotten bygone hats do the business:  topee and topper, bowler and boater, a mortarboard for the Lord Chancellor, ta-ran-ta-ra, perfect.    The very spirit of play, of disrespectful glee.   As I remarked last time,   it’s as camp as a flamingo in fishnets.   And it works.  Leaving the matinée even the most senior of Richmond’s citizens could be seen doing little skips and humming ‘In for a penny, in for a pound, it’s love that makes the world go round”.


box office

Touring    to 28 July  Touring Mouse wide   

rating four  4 Meece Rating

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MINDGAME Ambassadors, WC2



    Gotta  love the buccaneering quality of west end theatres: the Small Faces musical at the little Ambassadors off Cambridge Circus closed early , and David Haig’s  wonderful Pressure doesn’t come in for another fortnight. So a quick pounce by  producers hauled in this pocket psycho-thriller by the alarmingly prolific Antony Horowitz ((he of the junior James Bonds and sexed-up Sherlocks, plus TV Foyle’s War).  The play has been touring for years in bursts, having just delighted the Isle of WIght:   so tell the cast of three they’re coming Up West for a couple of weeks, keep the tickets well under the fifty mark,  set up bargain packages and hope for thrilled bums-on-seats.



By serendipity this weary but gallant little theatre is bang next door to that very un-thrilling geriatric landmark, The Mousetrap.  So I slithered in.  Always  worth observing the vagrant, less-celebrated creature that is UK theatre in the wild. Especially when it’s a retro,  schlock-horror mystery psycho bamboozle.


      I can certainly tell you, hand on heart, it’s better than the one next door. Though I had better be careful, since two-thirds of the cast and the producer are ex mousetrappers, with natural affection for the fusty old beast.   This one is set in a psychiatrist’s office in an improbably bijou secure hospital for the criminally insane in Suffolk.     A certain artificiality about this is, you find,,  part of the delusion under which which one or other  – or all three  – of the characters are labouring. So is the view through the window,  a portrait on the wall which it is worth keeping an eye on, and a full skeleton in a remarkably camp hand-on-hip pose  as if saying “Duh! Can he really be a doctor?”.  



 Added to the usual task of persuading us they’re not actors, the cast have the burden of acting as if they might be acting.  On the face of it Styler (Andrew Ryan) is  a supercilious true crime author  who has arrived, in eyewateringly tight Dad jeans,   to persuade Michael Sherwin’s Dr Farquhar to let him interview a serial killer in his custody.   An occasional scream in the distance,  a strangely tense nurse and an unnerving malfunctioning speaker system create the required traditional loony-bin atmosphere.  Not quite the ticket for Mental Health Week,  I suppose,  but it feeds nicely into two of our favourite worries:  fear of psychiatrists,   and a conviction that murderous insanity involves  devilish superhuman cunning.  Blame Anthony Hopkins and his damn fava-beans.   Tyler’s fascination with the subject is questioned by the shrink,  who lectures him for slightly too long on  reformation,  psychodrama therapy etc. 



 Who is deluded, and what is real?  What is the significance of this stuff about wisteria and dogs called Goldie ?  What is wrong with the  presumed nurse  (Sarah Wynne Kordas,  who valiantly maintains her own confusing is-this-acting-or-acting-as-acting ).  What is in that sandwich?     Why is  Dr Farquhar  growing ever more elfin in his manner?   Sherwin conveys a powerful air of an accomplished light-comedy actor wondering how far he dares push the camping-up.  When he asks “Is this spiralling into farce?” the urge to shout “Oh yes it is!”  is extreme.   There’s a strait-jacket and some nasty menace (not one for the kids, this).    But the skeleton in the corner has, by Act 2, assumed an even more “ooh-Matron” pose with one hand on hip and one in front of his mouth.  That won the third mouse, to be honest.   


box office 0844 811 2334    to 10 June

rating   three  3 Meece Rating

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RED Wyndhams, WC2




It is no bad thing to have your stage hero effectively co-designing the set. Christopher Oram’s recreation of Mark Rothko’s 1950’s studio is a bleak box with a cluttered workbench and frames and pulleys for his vast canvases. It is dominated by the overbearing, majestic, mysteriously edgeless, tragic and challengine reds and blacks of his Seagram- project canvases. Neil Austin’s lighting design, a miracle in itself, makes them glow and threaten, palpate and shiver in just the way the artist eloquently insists in John Logan’s astonishing play. (on which subject, sign the petition now to save stage lighting from a disastrous new regulation, , this matters).



Michael Grandage brought it first eight years ago to the Donmar, since when it has enthralled Broadway and the world. To general joy Alfred Molina reprises the part of Rothko, more than ably partnered this time with Alfred Enoch as the skinny, intense, thoughtful young assistant Ken who is his awed skivvy. And finally, after the two years covered in this sharp 90 minutes, his conscience. It is an eloquently entertaining duologue stretching from Nietzsche, Jung, Hamlet , Rembrandt and Turner to the emotional and spiritual point of art, its evolution from figurative to abstract, its inheritance and what Rothko calls the moment when “the child must bash the father” as his abstract-impressionists crushed the Cubists (he feels this until young Ken tells him that the pop-art movement is about “this moment and a little bit tomorrow” so he too must give way. Gracelessly.)

So it could be overtalky, were it not so electrically theatrical and visual as Ken darts around stretching canvases and mixing paints. At one point the pair of them – wild in separate energy and then strangely, balletically together – prime a huge red canvas at speed to an rising operatic theme. Its emotional shape is intensely satisfying too: clashes, revelations, arguments, absurdities , passions and the perennial joyful mystery of genius. Of the way that a terrible self-absorbed curmudgeon can turn his own restless depressions and terrors into something which feeds the world’s spirit for centuries after.



“Not everyone wants art that actually hurts” protests Ken in his great diatribe against the master late on, but sometimes we need it. And it is Ken who persuades Rothko in the end to refuse the swanky, lucrative, fashionable Seagram-building money and keep the pictures – which he did, in 1959. Rothko explains why in one of the smaller but most enjoyable soliloquies in which Molina describes, with pitiless detail, the utter ghastliness – the timelessly pretentious horrific Tina-Brownery – of the smart New York restaurant for which they were commissioned.
Perfect. It is a play of fire and poetry, laughter and rage. An imagined colloquy with its own kind of genius.


box office
to 28 July
rating five (extra thematic mouse  dedicated to design and lighting. Sorry no lighting mouse, will get Roger to draw one..)

5 Meece Rating Set Design Mouse resized


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