Monthly Archives: June 2018

MONOGAMY Park Theatre N4

A RISOTTO OF RESENTMENTS 

 

 

In some plays, you reach the interval not exactly dissatisfied but wondering “where is this going next? How will it knit  up the ends.?  So many characters – and their  troublesome characteristics – have piled in, manic sitcom style, with bursts of backstory and downright bafflement, that it seems a problem beyond solution in a final hour. That is why you should not leave in the interval. 

 

      I wouldn’t have anyway, being keen on Torben Betts, whose INVINCIBLE should be much better known.    And the superscription of the play promised that it was, beyond the satire about celebrity-TV-chef in family meltdown, a reflection on the “culturally imposed aberration” of nuclear family life in general.   I am not sure it achieved that, given that the characters as individuals were so much more (entertainingly) flaky than the norm.

 

      So we had the great Janie Dee as TV cook in rehearsal , clearly drinking too much,  preparing a family gathering and rather more bonded to a crucifix on the kitchen wall than is normal in cookery celebs. She has   a TV assistant  (Genevieve Gaunt) manically Bubble-y , swerving begin street, Sarf-London PA efficiency,   and a loghorrreic intricacy of sentence .   She is in communication with the Mail over some shaming drunken photos of the saintly cook.  Then there’s Caroline’s son ( Jack Archer)  frustrated by her failure to listen to something he has to tell her (it’ll be Act 2 before he manages) and a hunky builder Amanda fancies and who clearly prefers the maturer mistress of the house. But then, exploding into the kitchen with his gold clubs in comedy woolly pompom hats, there is Mike the red faced banker husband.

 

 

At which point you stop worrying about whether Betts will take it anywhere interesting because Patrick Ryecart is just plain hilarious,  from his bristling ginger eyebrows to his ramblingly explosive anecdotes about the glory of golf and his choleric outbursts about “homosexual bolshevist vegetarians” his theory that ‘vegetarian’ is neolithic language for “shit at hunting’.  Every scene he is in lights up.  

 

        Too many issues of the day seemed to cram in : some current to the characters (Charlie Brooks is very touching as the newly arrived Sally, mistaken for someone else) and many in back-stories.    There’s gayness, infidelity,  religious mania, Syrian refugees, an Afghanistan veteran suicide,  Japanese POW postwar trauma, multiple,sclerosis, autism, benefit cuts and the criminality of the British empire.  I began to wonder whether Mr Betts was fulfilling a side-bet on how many issues he could get in without mentioning Brexit.

 

     As to where this entertainingly jerky goes in Act 2, –  the answer is drunker, wilder, increasingly funnier (Alistair Whatley of the Original Theatre Company clearly enjoys directing chaos).  Characters do grow, esp Dad Mike:  I was actually slightly tearful at his realization that he’d never told his son he loved him. Janie Dee is as ever credible even at the characters oddest , drunkest and most religiously transfixed,  Archer as  the son poignant and infuriating. The carving knife brandished in scene 1 gets its moment, as is the grand tradition of theatremaking;  the entire act  is constructed in a rising thunderstorm effect. 

 

box office 0207 870 6876  to 7 july

rating three  3 Meece Rating

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MACHINAL Almeida, N1

MICHAEL ADAIR SHUDDERS AT THE HARD OLD PATRIARCHY…

 

‘These modern neurotic women, doctor. What are we going to do with them?’ says one exasperated male character to another. Here, right on time for the #MeToo generation, is a revival of Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal… first performed in 1928.   90 years on, some men are still making our skin crawl, and Natalie Abahami’s superb direction of this prescient masterpiece submerges us in a frantic, visceral nightmare.

 

This is a play about Helen, played by the hypnotic Emily Berrington. Helen works as a stenographer in New York. She lives beneath a noisy train track in a tiny apartment with her impoverished mother (Denise Black) until her employer, Mr Jones (Jonathan Livingstone), takes a shine to her. Why? Because Helen has such lovely hands, of course. Despite Helen wincing every time that her oblivious boss touches her, the two wed and she despondently sobs throughout their honeymoon. Mr Jones doesn’t care. Mr Jones barely notices. Mr Jones wants to sit with his legs spread telling his beautiful wife his anecdotes, he reasons that he’s worked hard so he should be allowed to enjoy his life. At one point he even dares to utter ‘I understand women’.

 

Although the subject matter wrings your stomach, as a visual spectacle this is an utterly beautiful play to watch. There is ceaseless cacophony of sound – the thud of metal doors and bins, the relentless grind of typewriters and pneumatic drills, even the repetitive 8-bit bleeps of a child’s Gameboy helps to build a wall of noise that surrounds us, imprisoning us with our protagonist. The rhythmic, breathless dialogue matches it – clicking back and forth as if set to a metronome. All of the music and sound effects are perfectly chosen and placed, huge credit to Ben and Max Ringham for Sound and Composition.  The set by Miriam Buether matches this. A slanted mirror takes up the entire back of the stage  – we see everything in double, further adding to the claustrophobia. Each of the story’s nine chapters is separated by an increasingly blinding light.

 

It’s not all hell and nightmares though. As Helen seeks to escape from the shackles of a husband she never loved and the straitjacket of social convention, she heads to a bar. As the stage becomes filled with cigarette smoke, we become privy to the conversations of other couples – one pair are negotiating an affair, whilst an older man is extolling the virtues of amontillado sherry to a younger man in a bid to seduce him. It’s a heady mix of sight, sound and smell that serves to seduce the audience themselves – and in this midst, Helen, in a grasp for freedom, begins an affair. In its aftermath, the mechanical noises temporarily ease away and are replaced by the soothing patter of rainfall, the claustrophobic mirror suddenly seems to reflect a limitless night sky.

 

This is a brilliantly crafted work, where the biggest plaudits must go to those involved in the technical production. Urgent and compelling, it is remarkable that Treadwell’s work is as relevant now as it would have been 90 years ago.

 

BOX OFFICE  020 7359 4404 TO JULY 21

boxoffice@almeida.co.uk

RATING   FOUR   4 Meece Rating

 

 

 

 

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JULIE Lyttelton, SE1

STRINDBERG MEETS STENHAM, BIRD MEETS BLENDER

 
We’re in a Hampstead mansion. The daughter of the house is whooping it up at her birthday party, a deafening, purple-lit rave where tight-buttocked androgynes and glittering hair-flickers writhe and shriek. Below them in a bland grand kitchen the help – Ghanaian chauffeur John (Eric Kofi Abrefa) and his girlfriend Kristin the maid (Thalissa Teixeira) tidy up, take a swig of the absent Daddy’s Chateau Latour and comment on the chaos. Down comes the birthday girl Julie, leaping around barefoot on the worktops flashing ever more thigh at Jean. And so the trouble begins.

 

 

The scenario is familiar, you say? Indeed. It’s a Strindberg update by Polly Stenham,  who at 19 famously wrote “That Face” , brilliant on the damage of growing up in a boho, addiction-addled posh family. A few years later she gave us No Quarter, which was frankly just annoying, since rather than any relatable pain it exuded a tiresome conviction that rich decadent bohemians are somehow more interesting than other people . Which is an attitude you can only get away with if you’re Noel Coward, and capable of lightening it up a bit. Which Stenham, as yet, is not.
But this time she joins the endless line of adaptors and updaters of August Strindberg’s toughly nasty, misogynistic Miss Julie: a play soaked in such fin-de-siecle Nordic hopelessness that it makes Ibsen look like PG Wodehouse.

 

It is hard to see why – apart from the obvious marketing reason – Stenham would need to borrow the classic. There are other ways to tackle the hypocrisies and inequalities of rich London versus its immigrant servitor class – the stated intention here – without piggybacking on the miserable old Swede. Stenham’s Julie is not an 1888 ingenue for whom sex with Jean would be momentous , but a 33-year-old trust-fund waster, returned home to live with her affluent father, party, and self-medicate with everything from Xanax to cocaine. The gang upstairs is not Strindberg’s estate peasantry but the usual upmarket druggy ravers; the heroine’s degenerate behaviour and distress has less to do with social pressures than with the fact that she’s off her face and with a bolted-on back-story about her mother’s death.

 

 

Only the character of Jean with his hard-edged ambition and eye for the main chance feels close to the original, and he is a man for all ages. Stenham’s social-outrage intention is clear enough, especially when the chauffeur (good line) exasperatedly tells the wealthy messed-up Julie “We don’t have the luxury of being sad like you”. And again when Kristina the maid is given a very un-Strindbergian speech of indignation near the end about how she has washed our heroine’s blood-stained underwear , picked her up from abortion clinics, listened to her endlessly but despises the faux-liberal pretence that they were ever any kind of friends.

 

But with the glossy visual values (Tom Scutt design, amazing) and some remarkably directed movement by the ensemble of non-speaking partygoers (Ann Yee clearly should be booked for your next rave), the howling flaw is that Carrie Cracknell’s production feels more like a zoo – “see the rich posh ravers!” – than any sort of polemic exposure. There is one particularly enjoyable moment when – in what may be a dream sequence – the dancers creep down from above with cockroach-like crawling movements and vanish into the mysteriously changed kitchen appliances. It’s not often you encounter the stage-direction “Exit through the dishwasher”.

 

And there’s the extreme audience giggle when (back to Strindberg’s detail again) our modern Julie rather improbably insists on taking her pet canary with her on the fantasy flight to Cape Verde with Jean. When told to kill it, she puts it in the Magimix. Vanessa Kirby’s Julie (a tremendous performance, as one would expect) then collapses in sobbing grief about her terrible traumatic past experience. But the Magimix giggle ’n groan has spoilt that. So we feel nothing. What a waste.

 

box office 020 7452 3000 To to 8 Sept
Travelex season. NB in cinemas 6 Sept, NT Live

rating  three 3 Meece Rating

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TWO NOBLE KINSMEN Shakespeare’s Globe, SE1

THE RUMBUSTIOUS AFFAIR OF THE CLOGS IN THE NIGHT TIME

 

 

Barrie Rutter and the Globe are made for each other:. Fresh out of his storming leadership (and frequent personal performances) with Northern Broadsides, he returns here under the new regime, merrily reminiscing in the programme about 1996 , when none of the costumes arrived from the airport until the interval. This time he is director of a pretty ridiculous Shakespeare collaboration with John Fletcher, loosely based on Chaucer. Palamon and Arcite, in prison after a defeat, vow eternal bromance but promptly drop that when they sight King Theseus’ sister Emilia (Ellora Torchia) , and both want her. Arcite is banished and Palamon is released by the jailer’s daughter (just like Mr Toad ,though with an even more preposterous disguise) . So on it goes, with some storming rustic dances and shouting, to the point when the King decides to solve it all with a fight.

 

For when you’ve got a medieval English tale based on an Italian romance from the classical canon, the obvious thing is to introduce a great deal of clog-dancing, morris , stave-clashing, barmy multicoloured ragwear, a Green Man, and some symbolic straw animals on sticks. Add some fine over-the-top acting, with King Theseus irritably baffled about the whole thing (favorite line – “What ignorant and mad malicious traitors ARE you?”). Second favourite : “Emilia, if one of them were dead, would you take the other to your husband?” “I cannot! They’re both too excellent!”. And there’s even a comedy Ophelia. Jude Akuwondike is a grand Theseu, and the rival knights are splendid, Paul Stocker and Bryan Dick going it large like a couple of gap-yah lads, but the one who walks away with every scene she’s in (not least when dancing insanely with the cloggers, driven nuts by thwarted love) is Franesca Mills as the tiny, vigorous, sweetly naive and rompingly mischievous jailer’s daughter . She loves Palamon and gets persuaded by a very dodgy doctor to settle for Jon Trenchard in custard-coloured harem pants instead.

 

She has a special quality: an expressive, innocent face combined with a crazy determined fire in performance which makes everyone else look vanilla. She was last a hoot in Northern Broadsides’ touring Cyrano, and I wrote then that she stole the show “Not because she is of “restricted growth” but because in athleticism, comic timing, clarity and utterly credible sincerity of reaction she’d be a treasure at any height, in any company” . I say that again.

 

Oh, and the poetry? Yes, that’s there too, not top-rank Shakespeare but some lovely lines. And the moral (given that the final twist is hardly down to any conventional tragic flaw, but rather to an offstage stallion) is soothing enough. Poor Theseus resignedly hands over his sister to an unexpected winner and says “Let us be thankful for that which IS”.

Dear Barrie Rutter. Come again to the Globe, do. Next time let’s get you out there roaring at the groundlings yourself, where you belong.

 

box office 020 7902 1400 to 30 June
rating four   4 Meece Rating

 

 

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MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON Bridge, SE1

A WRITER, A MOTHER, A LIFE

 

The elegant new Bridge continues to demonstrate – firmly — that it is uniquely versatile. After one traditional tragicomedy (Young Marx) we had a swirling mob-riot immersive Caesar , then an intimate pastoral quartet , and now the 900-seat space offers a bare square of light, thrust forward for intimacy. And ninety minutes of sparse projections, artful lighting, a single hospital bed and chair and one narrator talking about a not particularly exceptional life.

 

Risky? On the other hand, the performer is Laura Linney, fiercely intelligent star of screen and Broadway, the source bestseller is by the Pulitzer winner Elizabeth Strout, the adaptor Rona Munro who dazzled us with the James Plays at Nicholas Hytner’s NT. And the director is no less than Richard Eyre. So, not such a risk.

 

And if you have a taste for this particular tone of intense, forensic emotional autobiography with a strong tang of the creative-writing course, it’s top of the genre. And it isn’t entirely fair o say “not particularly exceptional’, because Strout’s novel sets her heroine – a successful writer – at a moment of private crisis . She is remembering nine weeks in hospital with some undiagnosed serious condition, apart from her rather unengaged husband and two small daughters. But to her surprise her mother, long estranged, turns up and sits by her bed relating nicely sour stories of old neighbours. It reignites the writer’s memories of a fairly grim and lonely childhood in the Illinois croplands, in an isolated house without books, television or friends, and a father emotionally war-damaged and difficult. The twist is that Lucy Barton, rather than being a bit irritated and wanting to get the hell out, finds immense solace in her mother’s undemonstrative but positive presence. A slow catharsis takes place.

 

Linney is brilliant, evoking in turn both Lucy and the twanging, tough-nut mother. Elegant projections give us the Chrysler building outside the window, memories of wide fields , of her first married apartment and of the louche , alarming but stimulating freedom of New York and its people during the AIDS crisis. The strongest aspect is her evocation of childhood loneliness and a sense of never quite identifying and belonging, even in marriage. It tips over, though, typical of its post-Salinger genre, into a righteous affirmation of writerliness and its “ruthless” need to centre on itself and tell its “only story”.

 

And sometimes that can wear you down a bit. Make you feel a bit – well, I dunno, British. Suddenly the spell breaks and you wish she’d talk about something else. I would pay a lot to see the wonderful Linney, in a space and production like this, telling any number of other stories. But maybe not this Strout one. But it’s a class act, and could well be absolutely for you.

 

Box office: 0843-208 1846. to 23 June
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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KILLER JOE Trafalgar Studios, SW1

LUKE JONES REVELS  IN VIOLENCE, CHILL, NIGHTMARE..AND GREAT DIALOGUE

 

Orlando Bloom – denim, cowboy hat, slicked back hair, twinkling grimace – is as chilled out as a man as Texas can get. You’d have thought being a police detective and contract killer on the side would put you on edge a bit. But Killer Joe is quietly spoken,  with the calm rolls and bounces of a Texan voice. Around him is the madness.

 

Chris (the manic and fantastic Adam Gillen) wants his mother dead. Him, his sister, his dad, his dad’s new wife – none of them care if she’s dead or alive, but all are very keen on the 50,000 dollar life insurance policy she’s got dangling over her head.

 

For Tracey Letts’ first play (he won the Pulitzer years later for August:Osage County, another ‘family goes batshit’ drama), it is almost perfectly structured and paced. Each dark twist is unravelled  delicately, each scene is a steadily heating pressure cooker. And the dialogue! Cutting, mean spirited and genuinely witty (as opposed to ho ho ho theatre jokes).

 

This of course could all fall flat in the hands of idiots; thankfully Simon Evans (who wonderfully revived another Letts play, Bug, not too long ago) almost perfectly directs an incredibly talented cast. Steffan Rhodri – never a wrong call – is excellent as the coach potato father, a sort of murderous Homer Simpson. Neve McIntosh – his new wife Sharla – is a great mix of smiles on show and plots cack-handedly whirring away behind the eyes.  Adam Gillen does his ‘eyes bulging mania’ again, but it’s perfectly suited to the dim plotter son Chris. And of course Orlando Bloom is all charisma,  and his dark, slightly seedy charm neatly suits Killer Joe’s menace.

 

The only ounce of criticism I have for this production is Sophie Cookson as Dottie, the daughter who Killer Joe claims as as retainer for the hit job. Her performance is one of the few shades of innocence in this grim world. Her romance/drawn out assault is one of the most scarring threads in the play. But her accent is a rodeo that bucks around all over the place. Which is a bit distracting.

 

The masterstroke in all of this is the Reservoir Dogs-style ending; a tornado of thrown punches, gun shots, doors slammed on heads, guns dropped, throats grabbed. No flimsy stage punches here. I felt every beat. Evans cranks up the speed, then slows it right down, everyone slurring into brief slow motion. Ten out of ten for violence.

A final note of praise should go to the design:   eerie trailer park set by Grace Smart, dustily sunny then nightmarishly colourful lighting by Richard Howell, and  chilling music cues and unsettling underscoring by Edward Lewis,   A sharper, tenser, more violently entertaining night in the theatre you will not find.

 

 

Box Office to 18th August   – 0844 871 7632   

Rating  five    5 Meece Rating

 

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STITCHERS Jermyn St theatre WC1

A TAPESTRY OF HOPE

 

 

         Lady Anne Tree was the Duke of Devonshire’s daughter, sister in law of Kathleen Kennedy and Debo Mitford:   grand as they come.   Kept from school,   like the Mitford girls she grew a maverick streak  and learned from the bereavements of war to think for herself.    She was a lifelong prison visitor , and at home she found artistic and meditative relief in fine needlework,  so it occurred to her there was one group who had a lot of time to fill…  So twenty years ago she founded Fine Cell Work.  It teaches prisoners fine needlepoint  and quilting and sells it in the top shops. So the men (and some women, but most prisoners are men) can build up a modest fund for when they are freed.  

 

         Full disclosure: I am a patron of it, and have watched a group as ladies from the Royal School of Needlework taught, advised and provided materials (but not scissors..) to the most unlikely of seamsters for the next week’s in-cell work.  It is extraordinary and inspiring, and hard to believe that getting approval took Lady Anne thirty years of being treated as a “tiresome woman”. 

 

 

        Esther Freud’s debut play, drawn from the foundress’ letters and diaries and from observing today’s groups,  is an impression of those early trials and, in the background,  her struggles with the Home Office (where junior staff framed her increasingly furious letters: it’s not every day a Duke’s daughter calls you a load of shits).  At last, under John Major, permission was given. The rest is history, and a great deal of beautiful work.  Because as the redoubtable Lady said,  it had to be “top notch, none of this church hall nonsense” .

 

      Sinead Cusack is dream casting, with her strong humorous face,  drop-dead timing and ability to convey personal stress and frustration behind the gung-ho, matter-of-fact manner of the old aristocracy.  She’s got you,  from the moment when she first appears in a sensible brown coat and solid hat in front of Liz Cooke’s layered  set of wire mesh and bars. This set is  tough enough for vigorous chin-ups,  and rings often with the frustrated, angry prison percussion of banging and echoic shouting.  Director Gaby Dellal (better known for film work)  punctuates and underlines the action this way;  the tiny theatre easily creates the sense of a claustrophobic cell and bleak corridors behind.  

       Around Cusack we have Michael Nardone as  Lukasz the Pole,”strongest man in the prison”  and his scared new cellmate Tommy (Frankie Wilson),  in denial about his conviction.  There is Trevor Laird as tough Len,  the wheelchair- bound Busby,   and Victoria Elizabeth as the troubled trans “Denise” . One by one they succumb to the project and become its cheerleaders.  Freud treats the process carefully, using the reality of things actual inmates have said down the years.

  

  At times in the first half I had (being partisan) an  uneasy fear that it was not growing  enough narrative energy,  but becoming ironically imprisoned in its novelistic desire to show gradual personal change.   But there is fascination in that too,  and the physicality of the situation is especially striking:   brawls and chin-ups and thrown punches are set against the fine, fiddly  motor skills of the needleworkers’ hands .  You don’t need to be a neuroscientist to see how benign that could be to the scrambled angry brains in a macho environment.  The perfectionism of Lady Anne is entertainingly set against the  well-evoked grim squalor of the cells.  When Len snarls angrily “I made a pig’s ear of it!”   rather than cooing encouragingly she trills “Oh, dear, so you did. Unpick!”.    When he  man refuses to help a newcomer she says “Oh come on!” like any schoolmistress.   

        The unprisonerlike virtues of neatness and patience grow, and the sense  that it is worth – in embroidery or in life – being willing to start again.   The names of colours shine out against the grey-green dreariness:  emerald, cinnamon, Aquamarine, burnt umber, scarlet.. The sense of an outside world’s appreciation grows too. Busby gets the first letter since his mother died,  from a customer who cannot know his name.   And when the prison officer sceptically asks “How many embroidery-loving, criminal-sympathising, letter-writing people are out there, do you think?”  Lady Anne replies “Legions!”.  

 

       And so there  have proved to be.   It is quite hard to review this play  simply as drama without just succumbing, dazzled, to  the fineness of its late heroine and her charity.   Sometimes I did wonder just how useful it was of the author to appliqué on little bits of Lady Anne’s travel diaries and the loss of her dog: Cusack can create a real and rounded character without that obvious kind of help.    But it does find dramatic catharsis, in the second short half,  and leave you both triumphant, and thinking harder about prison than most people do.  Result. 

 

box office http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/

to 23 june      Rating Four     4 Meece Rating

   

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