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..)

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PUT OUT THE LIGHTS Avenue Theatre, Ipswich




   Three children in the 1540’s play in a hay-barn,  built fragrant and real in the tiny theatre.   One has  found a pilgrim medal and they  argue about grown-up matters like the “Popish trash” who might have dropped it, and the famous local statue of “Our Lady Gracious” which has been rightly  (in the view of the censoriously new-Protestant boy Alexander ) rightly sent to London to be burnt .  “The cult of saints is OVER!” he cries. “No one’s is ever allowed a pilgrimage no more”.  The other lad, Edward, rather liked the statue.   There is a fleeting mention of Ann Boleyn, executed four years earlier :    “a whore, but -“  one argues  “no friend to the Pope”. The girl Alice is as engaged as the boys, a forthright and confident farm kid.  



           The clever thing is that in this short, lively opening scene we easily believe that bright 16c children talked of these things: just as now they talk of global warming, refugees,  Corbyn or – a dark parallel to come later – of jihadi martyrdom. The  three  local youth-theatre children carry the opening with conviction, and Joanna Carrick’s dialogue  is faultless:  naturalistic to a modern ear but with proper Suffolk accents riding archaic idioms and rhythms with ease.   Thus when moments later their young adult selves are before us, we are aware both of their characters and their times. 



     For  Protestantism caught light rapidly  in these Eastern counties.  Alexander, planning a weaver’s career and Flanders travels, has brought an English Testament to read scripture with them: the youngsters are enthralled by the new  technology and the sense of holding the real original Word, not tired Catholic “superstition” of  statues and ritual.   Contempt for Popery has conspiracies being talked of even on the poorest farm.  The seafaring town has heard a  rumour that the statue of “Mary Gracious” was smuggled to Papist Italy (it’s still there! in Nettuno! Carrick as author-director went to visit it..).   


         The trio are increasingly at odds.  Gentle Ed challenges the ever-fiercer Protestantism of his friend with “Why must you be so heartfelt about everything?”.   When Alice’s father dies her grief  is lightened by pious Alex’s “Be strong in faith, be not bowed in spirit!”  but rather more by Ed’s proposal.   At which point I should mention that Isabel Della-Porta, Oliver Cudbill and Ricky Oakley deliver some of the strongest and most honest youthful performances I have seen.    Della-Porta in particular carries the centrally tragic role of the real Alice Driver with remarkable dignity and fire. 


        The young pair work together, laugh and joke and matchmake (a very funny scene)  for the earnest Alex.  But the wider story is darkening.    The boy-king Edward dies in 1553,  Jane Grey lasts nine days, then Catholic Mary, Bloody Mary,   has her five years’ terror.  It  bore very heavily on this region with its staunchly stubborn protestants.   When the happy couple come in exhausted and covered in black soot from the stubble-burning,  it is a brief ironic prefiguring of Alice’s end.    For despite electric, passionate scenes where her husband tries to persuade her to take the sacrament,  she will not do so, and finally in 1558 will stand alongside Alexander at the stake in 1558, her ears cut off and her living body burned for calling  Queen Mary a “Jezebel! Papal whore!”.    



        The political is the personal.   Ed’s cry to his friend Alexander is “leave us, with your liking of danger and darkness!”  and to his wife “Alice, the fire will be hot and the terror great and the pain extreme. And life is sweet…”.  She only says “We love God, that’s all..but do we love him enough?”  .   The heroism of it shakes you rigid:   Alice Driver in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs is recorded as saying of the chain holding her to the pyre “Here is a goodly neckerchief, blessed by God for it”.   Della-Porta in her final prison scene makes that seem credible. 



      I think I will be haunted by this play.  I was by Joanna Carrick’s last one, PROGRESS,  and this is even better.  That was about  the aftermath for  local people caught up in the intellectual thrill and dark savagery of the Reformation. – set in 1561, when Queen Elizabeth visited Ipswich and a fragile peace came to a nation so bitterly, dangerously  divided that our current flouncing irritations over Brexit look like a nursery huff.  What Carrick has done in both is tremendous: no Wolf-Hall aristocracies and political gaming, simply a sense of clear young voices speaking to us from a distant past, suffering and relishing seismic changes in the way a whole western world thought and believed.  The ending has a quietly intense religious and personal force which leaves you silent.   


Box office     to to 27 May

rating  five

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NIGHTFALL Bridge Theatre, SE1




An immense intrusive pipe bisects the stage, a rusty oil tank below it with part of a tractor one side and a cheerless Victorian brick farmhouse indicated on the other. It is dusk, stars emerging behind; brighter starbursts from a welding-torch behind the pipe meet laughing enthusiasm from two lads in overalls. Anyone accustomed to rural dodges will grasp that they are tapping one of the ugly oil-pipes from the coast which – for a useful few quid – a farmer will allow across his Hampshire land. Ryan and Pete, gleeful in matehood, complete the job; Ryan’s sister Lou looks on with resigned scorn. Earlier than expected home, their mother Jenny strides up onto the stage and is not pleased at the felony. Even though, by this time, it is becoming clear that the farm is on its uppers and every little helps.



Thus the brand-new Bridge continues to defy predictability: after the serio-comic-historic Young Marx and the riotous immersive Julius Caesar here is a plaintive, conversational four-hander by Barney Norris. His marvellous earlier works (Visitors, ) and Eventide ( ) have been in more intimate fringe theatres. And there are not many 900+ unsubsidized houses which would take a punt like this, on a slice of 21c rural life in decline. Not even after Jerusalem, not even for a short run.

But it worked for me. With a fine-tuned cast, Rae Smith’s immense and atmospheric set and Laurie Sansom’s direction, Norris’ intense personal and social observation command attention: from a dangerously slow-burn start it proves to be not only an engrossing play but quite an important one.


It is on the surface a portrait of grief: the family’s father died of cancer a year or so back, and they are stuck in awkward irritable love, and also stuck with a heavily indebted farm which Ryan can hardly cope with and whose financial disaster Jenny, in her nostalgic resentful grief, denies. . Back into their lives comes Lou’s former boyfriend Pete, a childhood friend of both siblings , not a farmer but a council-estate lad fresh out of prison (we learn more, in dramatic second act revelations, about this). He is the skilled welder who has the bright idea about the pipe, his lifetime motto being “as long as you get away with it”.


But it is also a play about forgotten lives. A fierce essay in the programme has Norris reminding us that “We live in a country stolen from its a political class, a monopoly capitalism that locks us into wage brackets while leaving the lost of living to go wherever the wind blows; stolen by the swamping homogeniety of middle class white western taste“. These are probably, despite EU agricultural subsidies, Brexit people. Which is another good reason for the Bridge to kick the subject about , however obliquely.


The interweaving of the personal stories with that social observation has real power, just as Miller’s did in Death of a Salesman. The humanity of the four is to the forefront: Clare Skinner’s Jenny infuriating, needy, controlling, unhappy, trying to play normal and resolutely middle-class with her M & S nibbles and whatever wine the TV show says is fashionable, her Fevertree tonic and tea-lights. These distractions serve her nothing: “I’m never all right, that’s the trouble”. Ophelia Lovibond as her daughter is equally caught in grief, but more clear-eyed about the missing father’s shortcomings, and has suffered in other ways from the debacle. Ryan, saddest case of the four, struggles under the burden of the farm and of his mother : a terrific Sion Daniel Young, big-eyed, skinnily desperate, struggles on with forced optimism, irritated by the romanticization of his mother (“I chuck chemicals on wheat, Mum, I’m not a tree hugger. I make money, I make food, we’re not Druids living off roots”. Pete is Ukweli Roach, who from the laddish wide-boy of the opening scene reveals himself by stages in a tough, touching decency.


They are all, in their way, fascinating. Their diverse grief is part of them, an overarching reason to be stuck; but they are stuck anyway. A lot of people in rural Britain are, but they are not often put into focus, not in the most fashionable and chic of London theatres. There is mischief and usefulness in programming it just as the urban second-homers  return from their  May holiday in the pretty hills and fields, blind to the minimum-wage hinterland …


Box office: 0843-208 1846. to 26 May

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

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Worth going to Jonathan Church’s  latest Wilde “Classic Spring”revival if only for a feast of Foxes: patriarch Edward as  old Lord Caversham and his real  youngest son Freddie as his stage son Lord Goring. They do not disappoint, octogenarian Edward doddering for England, a testy dinosaur but sharp as a tack on the Earl’s exasperated lines.   Freddie – lately so memorable as Wilde’s nemesis Bosie in The Judas Kiss – is perfect too as the dandyish heart-of-gold. Which is crucial, as Goring speaks for Wilde himself in both his flippant epigrammatism and his genuine plea for a life lived more by charity and affection than by impossible moral pieties, “pitiless in perfection”.


They’re a treat, those two, with on the press night an extra gale of affection for Fox junior when he strides across the gilded  apartment to burn the blackmailer’s letter on a candle. Perhaps  due to over enthusiastic  elf ‘n safety fireproofing,  it failed to catch. And failed again,  and nearly dowsed  the candle. As  he improvised “nobody can read it now”over the barely charred remains, he and Frances Barber’s malevolent Mrs Cheveley gallantly resisted corpsing.  Almost.

But enough Fox-worship. More urgent in its Wildean philosophy than the earlier, larkier ones in the season, this is a fascinating and heartfelt play.  It is serious, despite  all the beloved absurdities, preenings, and wicked satires on high society prattle (Susan Hampshire’s monologue on modern dreadfulness is another veteran treat, showing the kids how it’s done) .  It is not mere social reputation at odds here, but the career of Sir Robert Chiltern: a  rising politician who years ago founded his wealth and career (political careers cost money then) on leaking a Cabinet secret for money.

The adventuress Mrs Cheveley can expose him and wreck career and marriage unless he compounds the dishonesty by praising her South American investment which he knows  to be a swindle.  Nathaniel Parker carries the torment of capitulation and regret well, and Barber is a rattlesnake foe.  Their encounter in the first act is electric,  and the villainess’  confrontation with the wife -Sally Bretton -equally so. It is assisted by the way that Cheveley wears immense and truly menacing puff sleeves and the pious Liberal-Ladies-Club wife  the demurest of white scalloped  collarettes: Simon Higlett’s design  is sumptuous but unfussy under a gilded dome, every detail elegant.

A bravo too  for the melodramatic entr’acte fiddler  Samuel Martin and the suavely intimidating Phipps the Butler (Sam Waller).And above all  Faith Omole’s West End debut as Chiltern’s sister: she handles Wilde’s Benedict-and-Beatrice sparring with Fox beautifully, with an edge of defiant mischief he’d have liked.


Box office 0330 333 4814. To 14July

Rating four  4 Meece Rating

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  The theatrical repertoire has a new monster:   Bernard, created by Joe Penhall  and brought to scorchingly memorable,  sociopathically  irresistible life by Ben Chaplin.   Who is wonderful.  Made for the part.    Bernard is a music producer-creator-arranger,  a drawlingly infuriating musical genius idolised for his long record of successes by the very young singer he decides to “use”- his word – on a two-album deal and US tour.  But she is also a creative, a songwriter and a girl of some spirit (Seana Kerslake, convincingly teenage and even more convincingly troubled).  She is  not a submissive Trilby to his Svengali.    So he likes to confuse and belittle her instinctive, passionate talent with advice that artfully undermines (“Let’s try it with a mandolin. Or a glockenspiel”).    And when it comes to crediting her in the sleeve and at the Novello awards, Bernard doesn’t. Won’t. As he amiably puts it “On the one hand I want to be kind and generous and co-operative. On the other hand, why the hell should I?”.   



    She’s just another tool for his genius, like the drummer he hit because “drummers don’t feel pain, they’re like fish”.    The music industry happens to be hungry for girl singers ,  now that “girls are the new boys”.   She feels robbed and abused, which indeed she is.    For most of the play we see the pair of them onstage both at once but in different places:  each is giving their version of the poisoned collaboration to a therapist,   with increasing interventions by the respective lawyers.    We learn that it has turned nasty following a US tour and the credit row, and the lawyers fight with increasing viciousness –  Neil Stuke and Kurt Egyiawan, both overwhelmed by their clients’ temperaments  – while one therapist (Jemma Redgrave) spouts psychotheory to her about how music activates the reward centres , and Bernard’s psych makes helpless attempts to humanize him. 



        Sometimes in flashbacks you see them together, and  get small moments at the keyboard or with the opening words of a song when you think first yes, he’s an old-stage, a perfectionist, he  can enhance what she creates:  make it a hit .  But  then moments later you think   “he is just messing with her head, that glockenspiel business is pure bullying”.   But if he’s a demon, she can be a diva: when she bites back accusing him of “dad-rock” values he winces;  when she dismisses her therapist for not understanding the fiery world of creativity, Seana Kerslake is plain terrifying.


       That she is a young girl and he an older, battered, canny man is important, yet this is not another predictable  bit of MeToo outrage. The point is that this is a specific environment, the Winehouse-hothouse of a music industry where private damage and profound feeling -“deeper than sex” says Cait –  are for sale. And, crucially,  intense performances  are achieved on gruelling, drug-fuelled tour schedules.   The most darkly hilarious scenes are between the two lawyers when hers – hearing that she was carried senseless from Pittsburgh to LA and woke backstage in her underwear – realizes that  them taking her across state borders means he can involve the FBI and claim kidnap.  Bernard on his side explains it’s all part of the tour camaraderie. “Esprit de corps,  or Stockholm syndrome?” comes the riposte. 



       But there are hundreds of wonderful lines and ironic, profound reflections on the business. “A song doesn’t have a heart” says Bernard.  “It has a void” . Yes. These are the soundtrack of all our emotional lives; we creep inside a song with our own pain and longing.  We invest in it. But so do vast multinational corporations, sharp lawyers, promoters and a myriad of session players, roadies, groupies, entourage sycophants and rehab therapists.   Penhall was once  a rock journalist, and had a tough time writing Sunny Afternoon about the warring Kinks. He knows both the power and glory of great songs,   and the potential for appalling behaviour, feuds, neuroses , sexist abominations, exploitation and lawsuits which beset the business.     So with director Roger Michell Michell and an irresistible cast,  he made it into a lethally funny, memorably moving, elegantly threaded play.   Wince and marvel. 



box office 0844 871 7628   to 16 June

Rating four  4 Meece Rating

Principal partner: Royal Bank of Canada 

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ROMEO AND JULIET Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon




    Running and scuffling, a crowd of kids in  black scatter across the stark stage under an open-sided, distressedly concrete-looking box. They fizz with energy, insult and partisan gang loyalty. And they all have knives.  This young community chorus  share the  opening : Erica Whyman’s take on “fair Verona” and the feud of Montague and Capulet is contemporary,  its lethal blade  culture all too topical.



     So is the casting of  “Prince” Escalus,   Beth Cordingley striding exasperatedly in a swishing smart coat to stop the latest melée:   a woman in power despairing at immature male aggression.   In another intelligent gender-switch,  the Prince’s  cousin is one of two tough girls as combative as their male peers. Mercutio, normally just one of the most irritating, punning  hyper characters in Shakespeare, is  the quicksilver performer Charlotte Josephine:  androgynous, crop-haired, mocking, a far tougher cookie than Josh Finan’s gentle, lovingly homo-affectionate Benvolio.  



      But it is not a tiresomely gimmicky ‘now’ production, but one marked all through by that  close-worked RSC concentration on the text which always prompts interesting new thoughts about a play we know well.   Bally Gill’s Romeo is excitable, daft in his mooning for Rosaline ;  but in the freeze-frame moment at Capulet’s wild disco party he grows into a thunderstruck sincerity which, for all continuing puppyish and impulsive moments ,  gives him an enduring open-eyed  dignity.    Though the one bit of textual meddling that raised my eyebrow was when he sees  bright Juliet hanging on the cheek of night “like some rich jewel on an Ethiop’s ear”.   This Romeo says “ebony ear”.  Which just sounds weird, and in a relaxedly diverse cast, more prissily PC than is necessary.


      Otherwise it’s wonderful.  Karen Fishwick’s Juliet is fresh, brave,  growing through the play from childlike simplicity to reckless and honourable love.  Her Scottish tones give the lines the poetry they need;   yet the hot reality of the coup-de-foudre affair enables the pair,  without strain,   to get unexpected moments of comedy out of the often overswoony balcony scene.  His attempt to depart is every besotted couple’s “no, you ring off” “No, you..”  The Nurse, Ishia Bennison, is wonderfully funny, cackling about her nursing years, earthy and interfering,   not an “ancient” though she seems so to the young but full of knowing middle-aged familiarity and self-importance.  A small bouquet here too to Raif Clarke as her fed-up attendant Peter: he scores several of his own laughs.  The nurse’s first scenes with Juliet are telling, the girl flopping on her lap and giggling at her feet while the  seeming at times a decent pragmatist,  but suddenly terrifying, a proto-Lear when  he curses his rebellious daughter “Hang, beg, ie in the streets!”.   Again, a thought arises:  this man  feels his status and authority crumbling,  see how he sucks up to Count Paris…



        And the fighting?  Tybalt is a thuggish Raphael Sowole, knife-happy and aggressive;  when the mocking, slender Mercutio provokes him you sense layers of private animosity.  And for me a new reflection arises: the lazy truism is that it was the feud of the elders that caused the tragedy, of which the young lovers were victims.  But the text makes it clear that the elders are wearying of the old battle – when Romeo has crashed the party,  Capulet restrains young Tybalt with “be patient, take no note of him, he shall be endured”.     Both sets of parents are more than ready to listen to Escalus by the end, blaming nobody, reformed by sorrow as we all wish enemies would be.   It is the young, the impetuous kids in black, who keep the feud alive:  thumb-biting idiots Gregory and Sampson,   swaggering Tybalt defying his uncle in his determination to  punish the outrage of Romeo invading his ‘hood.    And not least Mercutio:   who for all Romeo’s pleading is spoiling for a fight with knife and insult, and won’t let up.  That it should be swagger, stupidity and verbal defiance that  lights the fuse of  disaster  for the lovers is as topical as it always was. 


box office  to 19 Jan

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

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Well, this is timely. In the shadow of Windrush, a play  immerses us in the colourful traditions of Caribbean funeral culture,   but unites even the uninitiated in a shared understanding of grief and family.


Nine Night is a sensational debut written by Natasha Gordon and directed by Roy Alexander Weise. We meet Lorraine and her daughter Anita as they are taking care of Gloria, Lorraine’s dying mother. Gloria is of the Windrush generation who came to the UK 70 years ago, looking for work and opportunity. When Gloria passes, the dark and quiet household is transformed into an explosion of light, colour, food and music. You can smell supper simmering on the hob as the family dances into the kitchen, the table soon covered in bottles of rum, flowers and a feast as they begin the traditional Jamaican Nine Night wake where family and friends drink, dance and eat to share condolences and celebrate the life of their departed loved one.



The play takes place in Gloria’s kitchen, a set by Rajha Shakiry which pays hugely satisfying attention to detail – from the tropical yellow wallpaper to the rickety kitchen drawers, it all feels real;  it has been lived in by this family. From the kitchen we hear music from the adjacent sitting room, the throbbing bass of reggae music and the busy chatter of voices. We are told the house is full of strangers, all here to join in the festivities. We are introduced to Great Aunt Maggie and Uncle Vince; the former an utterly glorious performance from Cecilia Noble, a domineering matriarch, defiantly rooted in her Jamaican traditions as she criticises and irritates her family relentlessly. Her sassy patois serves up many of the funniest lines of the evening as she boasts that her bush tea recipe can cure diabetes and that her cousin simply must be buried in a new wig, or else she’ll ‘frighten Jesus’.



But whilst there is much to amuse in this very funny play, it is ultimately a reflection on grief. The loss of Gloria brings about fissures in an already dysfunctional and disparate family unit. Franc Ashman is superb as Lorraine – tensing and shuddering with annoyance at the cringe-inducing insensitivities uttered by her family; not least by her brother, Robert, another terrific performance by Oliver Alvin-Wilson. Robert is coping with his mother’s death in the way that men do best: by bottling up his emotions until they explode as anger and frustration, antagonising his niece and being cruel to his sister. His grief can also be glimpsed behind the veils of a drunken joke shared with the only other man in the play, Uncle Vince, played by Ricky Fearon.


It is Gordon’s mastery of the family dynamic and relationships that makes this play such a spell-binding experience. There is a sense that this is what all families are like: an assortment of disparate personalities, everyone rolling their eyes and attempting to get along whilst having been steamrollered by their grief. This becomes all the more poignant when set against the most contradictory of backgrounds – all of these people are suffering, yet the music is still blaring and the rum is still flowing. It’s breath-taking.

  There simply isn’t enough theatre like this. Poignant, authentic, stunning.   to 12 may

rating: five  5 Meece Rating

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