Monthly Archives: May 2018

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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