Monthly Archives: July 2018



The celebrations of the centenary of Women’s Suffrage in Britain have reached Dalston’s cultural heartland as Spectra Ensemble present a little-known opera by Suffragette composer Ethel Smyth, The Boatswain’s Mate, at Grimeborn. Smyth had to fight hard to become a composer, and even harder to get her work on stage, but she won through on both counts, being the first woman to have an opera performed at the New York Met. You might be forgiven for thinking that any opera we are going to get from Smyth could be tough medicine: something stridently defiant, even deliberately difficult. What we actually encounter in The Boatswain’s Mate is a warmly comic operatic farce: undeniably empowering, but also incisive, touchingly romantic and, most importantly, hilarious.

An isolated country pub, The Beehive, is run singlehandedly by its queen bee, the determined and charismatic widow Mrs Waters (Hilary Cronin). Elderly retired sailor Harry Benn (John Upperton) is keen to take possession of both lovely Mrs Waters and her thriving business, repeatedly proposing to her but finding himself repeatedly and firmly refused: Mrs Waters proclaims herself “once bitten, twice shy” when it comes to marriage. Unable to accept this, Benn persuades a wandering former soldier, Ned Travers (Shaun Aquilina) to carry out a fake ‘burglary’ so that Benn can finally win her heart with a dashing midnight rescue, staged to his own design. However, his plan backfires spectacularly when Mrs Waters proves herself more than capable of defending her pub from intruders, but in a brilliant twist, she may not in fact be able to defend her heart from the inconveniently dashing, open-hearted Ned. In a mounting storm of physical attraction and social convention, Smyth screws the farce tighter and tighter while creating a very real drama of courtship shot through with humour, wit and respect.

Director Cecilia Stinton slightly overeggs Mrs Waters’ prim respectability at the outset, and the drama feels a little static and lumpen to start, but just stay with it: once this opera takes off, it goes like a rocket. Christianna Mason’s sparse, effective design takes us to Margate in the Coronation year of 1953, with a pub simply suggested by a couple of tables and stools, and a revolving window alternating parlour and bedroom. Hilary Cronin’s Mrs Waters carries the piece with increasing presence, moving from schoolmistress control to magnetic emotional command with her pleasing soprano, finding increasing interest in her character’s secret inner vulnerabilities. John Upperton’s bald, tattooed Benn, a little unfocused to start in Studio 2’s very intimate setting, soon gets the laughs rolling in. Shaun Aquilina’s mellifluous Ned similarly grows in dramatic conviction, conjuring superb chemistry with Cronin. John Warner, leading the accompaniment from the piano, delivers Smyth’s score (in a piano trio) with exceptional care and skill: we have rollicking shanties, spikes of high and ribald drama and sinuous themes of thoughtful yearning, not to mention The March of the Women embedded in the overture. Disarming, surprising and brilliant.

~ Charlotte Valori

Presented by Spectra Ensemble

At the Arcola Theatre, Dalston as part of Grimeborn 2018 until 31 July. 

Box office: 020 7503 1646 or tickets here

Rating: Three 3 Meece Rating

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KING LEAR Duke of York’s , WC2



      You need not be aged – or even a man – to be a memorable Lear.  But there is an intense and concentrated emotion to it when a great actor in the last decades of life takes on the role.  Derek Jacobi, in Michael Grandage’s Donmar production, threw me seriously off-balance.  Now Ian McKellen, even older (80 near year) is  a more military, striding figure; but in dissolution equally wrenching.  The dignity of his late gentleness,  “not in my perfect mind” stops the heart;  so does his moment of pity for the long-neglected poor (who gather, silent ghosts, behind him in the storm).   For this third time in the role we are told that he deliberately chose to play it in the intimacy of Chichester’s Minerva last year;   here in the West End a reconfiguring and reduction of the Duke of York’s   (with a central walkway and false wall) maintains much of that atmosphere.   


          Jonathan Munby’s production has military uniforms and modern dress, but the theme of upward appeal to unseen gods, always strong in the text, is signalled by the Latin chant in the first scene and an almost nervous flinging up of hands by court officials at relevant lines;   in Lear himself it gives pathos to the sense that his growing mental fragility is a malignity sent down from above by the gods who toy with all frail humans,  so his own flaws of temper and self-knowledge are only feeding it.  His sudden spurt of rage at Cordelia is wholly credible,  and her unscripted gasp of “What?”  perfect.  As in the Grandage production, Cordelia is of black heritage, a dignified and touching Anita-Joy Uwajeh:  far from being “colourblind” it adds a sense that this most-loved child came from a second, southern wife, perhaps after the chillier mother of Goneril and Regan.    Since we have already heard Gloucester joshing about Edmund and the “sport at his making”,  this small detail adds to the sense of intimate family tragedy, joys and dangers cascading down the generations. 



      Little sense adding to the praise of McKellen: he is magnificent, both in emotional line and in delivery of certain well-known lines which he makes new.   Mever have I been more chilled than by his flat, prosaic reply to the more musically eloquent Cordelia’s pleading.  With deliberation the father says:  “Better thou hadst not been born than not to have pleased me better”. Brrr.    So just talk of the other excellences:  Sinead Cusack as Kent,  whose character works remarkably well as a decent straight-speaking middle-aged woman;  Lloyd Hutchinson as a Fool with echoes of Eric Morecambe,  Munby’s elegant solution to the old mystery of what happens to him,   Michael Matus a Jeeves-like Oswald, beautifully nasty;   James Corrigan giving Edmund dangerous vitality and not a little humour,  Luke Thompson’s Edgar becoming Poor Tom better than any I have seen. And, not least, Kirsty Bushell as a psychopathic sexual sadist in a flippy short skirt, fit to give you nightmares.   


         So,  heroic and beautiful and serious, the terrors of the earth.  Well worth 3 hrs 40 minutes in heat which, despite the theatre’s pretty good ventilation, made you maternally pleased for the cast when after 90 minutes Lear, Edgar, Fool and Kent get wet through to their underpants by some stonking good stage rain.     


box office   to 3 nov

rating five

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This is two hours of  treasure. Barry Humphries of course always was one, in all his characters, and this time he puts on “the most subtle and intricate disguise” as himself, amiable in a purple velvet smoking-jacket, only occasionally bothering with deadly one-liners when necessary. As when Hitler – who, as a future horror overshadows this marvellous exposition – gives him the chance to muse gently and topically “Incredible that a great nation should hand over the reins of government to a loud-mouthed psychopath with a ridiculous comb-over…”


But never mind Trump. This is his tribute to a long fascination with the short,fertile period of the Weimar Republic with its snarling cabaret songs , yearning romanticism and destructivepolitical despair: “a fusion of naked liberation and bitterly gay pathos”. Germany was ruined by the First World War, its currency chaotic, the Kaiser gone and corrupt opportunism everywhere; with a reckless sense of rolling the dice the the last chance saloon and speeding up the tawdry roundabout of life to see what it flung off . It gave us Brecht and Weill, Bauhaus, Expressionism, Klee, Schoenberg; painters, composers, anarchic thinkers, breakers and re-creators.


The rising Nazi party as the ‘30s progressed saw only decadence: dangerous and often Jewish wit subverting of the neat Aryan dream. When they rose this “degenerate art” was banned. But the fascination of Weimar years, and especially its cabaret, endures. Today there are half a dozen chanteuses, often in underwear, whose act is Weimar wannabe. But the best, the Queen of them all, immaculate in technique and reckless in sexual self-awareness, is Meow Meow from Melbourne. She and Humphries are a perfect pairing: he in exposition of the period’s music, she bringing it to life, sharp and sour and heartbreaking.


She growls into “Life’s a swindle – get what you can /from your fellow man”, into a fierce Pirate Jenny, a heartbreaking Surabaya Johnny. Once there is a terrifyIng rendering of an erotic solo Sonata Erotica by Erwin Schulhoff which consists entirely – with sheet music she flings around page on page – of a simulated orgasm. Twice she duets with Humphries, heartbreakingly in “The Ruins of Berlin”, in the three languages of the Occupying Powers of 1945 after the war.   Behind her the Australian Chamber Orchestra delivers a sawing angry passion: its remarkable violinist Satu Vänskä steps forward once to sing with her a lesbian duet by Spolianski, Meine Beste Freundin, again quite brilliantly.
Barry, with an enthusiast’s modesty, talks a little in between: remembering how he met Spolianski, who wrote for Dietrich, and asked him to write one for Dame Edna Everage; he explains how it began for him with a box of forgotten sheet-music, and how in respectable Melbourne he heard, on crackling vinyl, the orignal cast recordign of the Threepenny Opera; and how long before that, as a child collecting stamps, he would be given Germany ones – with Hitler on , latterly – by a Jewish lady down the road. Whose letters from her husband, of course, stopped one day..

It is balanced artfully between his drily bufferly scholarship and Meow Meow’s louche sexuality and impassioned growling voice: there are jokes – at one point a supposedly comatose Barry is jerked awake during a spirited jazz tango by the slinky Meow Meow hurling a black-stocking leg over his shoulder and getting stuck in ridiculous flame headdress. But always there is that intensity of emotion: as he reflects, this was a different kind of jazz age to the merrier Parisian and American 20s and 30s. Always the dark was growing.    The orchestra plays the wrenching Lament for Doomed Europe with its final pleading trumpet. Your eyes fill. They should.


box office only to 29 July.

rating: five   5 Meece Rating


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THE KING AND I Palladium, W1



       Sometimes less is more and understatement gives a show its sharpest edge. Which is not to  suggest, perish the thought , that the Lincoln Center Theatre’s much- awarded production doesn’t do sumptuous. The front cloth alone used 500 books of gold leaf:    lit in rainbow changes it shimmers , a mirage of exotic orientalism, hypnotizing you at ever scene change. The costumes have equal dazzle, from the smallest gold- top-knotted child to King Mongkut and his wives like elegant living jewels;    the Victorian governess’ crinoline is dowdy in contrast  (I had forgotten that wonderful moment when, helping to Westernize the wives, Anna explains that a  crinoline represents the circle of protection around a woman.  “Are your men so aggressive?” asks the royal polygamist, puzzled… 



    But the restraint in Bartlett Sher’s production lies, notably in the first act, in his ability to resist all temptation to break into the  musical-theatre hoofing which some other productions have embraced. Instead the  court ladies, and often their children,  are static  in pools of shining decorum and crouched obeisance.  It establishes something which  not all the whistling of happy tunes and gettings -to- know-you can disguise (the merriment of Richard Rodgers’ immortal tunes is at times interestingly at odds with the material). What Anna Leonowens took on in 1862, at a tricky political juncture and under an  absolute and alien monarchy, was unnerving and lonely.  That sense of threat really works here, for Ken Watanabe’s King Mongkut is  at times far more genuinely frightening than Yul Brynner in the film.  The ongoing fear that he is, in |Victorian language, “a barbarian” is close to the surface. His accent is at times, in his tortured unaccustomed English, hard to make out, which adds to the alien quality,   and the  twinkle in him is hardly there until the wonderful persuasion scene at the end of the first half when Anna disguises her advice as admiring guesses about his intentions.  O’Hara herself is wonderful, even a bit topical actually,  as the original “Difficult Woman” who must manipulate stubborn male power. 



         A confession:   I have known every number by heart  from early childhood, from a cracked album and the film;  as a diplo-brat my nursery school was in Bangkok a hundred years later , my schoolmates the image of the little pupils on stage, and my treasure a steepled golden hat,  identical to the ones on the  dancers in the (bizarrely watchable if rather lengthy) exotic Uncle-Tom ballet  in the second act.   But this production has, more than any other  I have seen,   a determined sense of danger alongside the teasing mutuality of Watanabe’s sometimes oafish King and Kelli o’Hara’s gloriously forthright , beautifully sung Anna .   Her showstopping imaginary reproof to his polygamy always raises applause. “A flock of sheep and you’re the only ram – no wonder you’re the wonder of Siam!”   The glorious polka of Shall We Dance, with the palace pillars moving around them as if through great spaces, lifts the heart;  but when moments later Mongkut reverts to older notions of kingship and threatens poor Tuptim with a horsewhip, you believe it.  A move into stylization in the final scenes works extraordinarily well, both alienating and intensifying the sense of a distant, half-understood court.



         Really, the old show could hardly be bettered.  Beautiful staging  without exaggeration, a real spark between O”Hara and Watanabe, and  perfect support . Not least from a dignified and touching Naoko Mori as Tuptim and from Jon Chew who is engaging as the upright, anxious-to-learn Crown Prince Chulalongkorn.   He did indeed, as the show has him prophesy, abolish the grovelling rules of prostration so despised by Anna.   It is oddly and personally satisfying to know, for all the romanticisation,   that such things are true and that it was the eldest son of that young Chulalongkorn who was on the throne of Thailand a century later.  When I was that small child being taught, unsuccessfully, to do those strange, angular dances in a spiked golden hat.  


box office 0207 087 7757     to 29 Sept

rating five  5 Meece Rating

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  Danny Robins’ funny, credible, sharp-tongued play pivots round four figures of central cultural importance  to modern Britain: three comedians and a comedy commissioner.   It’s set in Blackpool.    Les Dennis is the classic benign seaside comic of the 20c , , battered and baffled by change,  once in his heyday untroubled by political correctness but latterly ruined by one racially insensitive joke, spotted at a gig by a pious Guardian journalist.  For him  (to our considerable entertainment in the script early on) everything is still a feed-line .


 His son Mike (Blake Harrison), lean and hirsute,  is more of a modern  observational standup, a sort of stingless Russell Brand whose only barbs are for safe targets like Trump.  He’s big on TV with lame amiable jokes about lemon tea. They are at odds over what is comedy and what is banter,  and not least about class tastes.  The young man’s  piety is the kind which demonizes the old working class because their observational comedy  – in a fast changing 20c  –  tended to observe that suddenly their familiar town had a lot of brown strangers in it, making curry and not as yet making friends with them.      Which strand of humour  may not actually have been hostile in intent, but was of course  wounding to the minorities, and had to end. 


         The third pivotal figure is Mike’s fiancée Jenna – Tala Gouveia – who is young, glamorous and of mixed race,   and takes offence at the lightest wrong word from a minimum-wage hotel receptionist, snarling at her “clearly the black in Blackpool is ironic, I tweeted that, got a lot of retweets” .   She is  an affluent TV commissioning editor who drips with contempt for Blackpool and everyone in it  “truly horrific. Geratrics or drug addicts…true horror… they don’t have a Pret…mobility scooters and people shooting up..”.     Being a TV comedy executive she has insufficient irony to notice that her contempt for a poor working-class town  is actually not so different from the  jokes for which she lacerates Bobby. She hasn’t invited him to the wedding.


      Whether it is entirely healthy for our culture to be so vitally centred on the profession of comedy and its power, you might well ask.   But while – as Peter Cook put it – we all sink giggling into the sea,   the question of comedy as power is beautifully teased out here.  So is the question of how shallow is the liberal veneer.   On Mike’s stag night, dressed as a Smurf and lurching between bars that “smell of jäger bombs and chlamydia”, he picks a  drunken fight.  With a Bangladeshi.   Using language which can end a media career in seconds. Especially if the victim’s son has recorded it…

       In the second act, in his dressing-room,  Michael – supported by his father – meets the victim, Mohammed,  and Nitin Ganatra steals the show, .  It is a horribly, awkwardly, brilliant scene with Ganatra wholly in charge, an imp of mischief who has a neat demand and – it turns out – isa rather better comedian than either of the professionals.    Young Mike unravels into something darker and angrier than his bland  liberal TV persona;  Les Dennis, always a gem, with a face creased with pain and understanding   shows up as the more adult and thoughtful of the two.  Jenna’s attitude to Mohammed is also a beautifully uncomfortable example of patronizing BAME-on-BAME attitudes.  

       It is sharp, entertaining, actually rather important.  I hope it transfers up West and spreads its healingly intelligent discomfort further as it questions not only the past generation’s pier-end comedy but the right-on,  resentful, cruel, lucrative faux- kindliness of the new.   to  11 August

rating four  4 Meece Rating

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GENESIS INC. Hampstead Theatre



Forty years ago as a Today reporter I helped cover the first IVF baby , Louise Brown. A Scottish cardinal told me that it was sinful:  not because of interfering with nature but because of “the means the sperm was gathered” – masturbation. The sin of Onan. The editor wouldn’t play the tape because we couldn’t, on the BBC,  mention seminal fluid.  Another row followed over whether the words “fallopian tubes” were suitable for early morning.


Well, as Jemma Kennedy’s lively play marks the anniversary,  Britain  and its notions of taste have changed. And, like most others, I know half a dozen happy young twentysomethings conceived that way . And, on the downside,  several women whose lives and marriages, were capsized by the  strenuous , disruptive and expensive processes of repeated failed in vitro attempts.


The social, political and attitudinal changes IVF brought need facing, and the virtually unregulated private-clinic industry challenging.    So,  good for Kennedy and Hampstead.  And one of the stimulating things about the play is that as well as painfully expressing female need and the awful self doubt – for some –   of infertility , it considers the fallout on men too.   Women of course have the  sharp end:  who wants a talking womb voiced by Jenni Murray, interrupted by two querulous ovaries and a judgmental mother vagina,  all bickering over her while she eats disgusting fertility recipes and surfs an AIBU-laden fertility forum?    Especially if Karl Marx appears at her bedside too, pointing out that for all the (rather ironic) victories of feminism over contraception and abortion,  our innards are now a patsy of profiteering capitalism..


    This argument rages, in one of the few surreal scenes , over  Serena (Ritu Arya in  a bravely heartfelt performance). She is the most pained of the clients, or victims, of the Genesis clinic run by a beautifully oleaginous Harry Enfield (love those faux posh consultant vowels –  “wimmin bettling infertility”). She   has borrowed, spent, hoped, abstained and tried her man’s patience (Oliver Alvin-Wilson is tremendous)  having  multiple cycles of a process where only 30per cent  ever succeed.  As another richer client, Bridget the investing financier with frozen eggs, exultantly puts it,   profiting from 70 per cent failure is a unique situation in business.   Laura HOward, by the way, absolutely nails the manner, aggression and vulnerability of the affluent corporate queen. Sure I’ve met her. 


But men suffer too.  From disappointment, from being regarded as sperm banks, from the distortions of love and longing,  Geoff, husband of the desperate Serena, already has a child , foisted in him by an ex but loved.   . Miles (Arthur Darvill)   is gay,  conflicted, and unwilling to be Bridget’s donor despite a close friendship. Which had, we learn with even more irony, once went further.  


At times I felt that in its 2 hr 30 there was one subplot too many – social worker Geoff’s struggle with his own adoption and with his rough-edged client Sharon. The disco fantasy clinic scene was annoyingly self consciously theatrical.  But this is cavilling.  Overall the play is fresh and funny, (Laurie Sansom directs , and knows just how to orchestrate a row in an A and E department with an eagerly caring security man).   If it is a bit more ambitious than is prudent, who needs prudence? The ghastly doctor’s  view that “love is unnecessary now we have deregulated the conception market”  is kicked aside by a final, beautifully sentimental hymn to all kinds of messy, awkward unsymmetrical human affection.    Worth catching, one more week to run.    to  28 july  

RATING four  4 Meece Rating

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   Alan Bennett may fear he is a national teddy bear these days, but the crafty old bugger still has a gnarled finger on the nation’s trickier pulse points. This latest play, steered by his vicar-on-earth-Nicholas Hytner, delivers a proper theatrical punch. It does this the old fashioned way, by lulling you into sentimental affection in a first act rich in vintage Thora-Hirdery and affectionate laughs, then slapping you round the chops with a first act close which I hope no critic will spoil (oops,just looked, two of the previews just have, though west end whingers remain innocent).  And then he resolves it with a  mixture of black humour and genuine pathos in the second half.

   Classy. Moreover he lards it with retro song routines, both naturalistic and fantasy, from You Made Me to Good Golly Miss Molly and Get Happy, thus neatly  prodding the associative nerve in anyone from , say, 50 to 110.  Not to mention turning an aged-up Simon Williams into a  superannuated chorus captain in striped PJs , his game if wobbly ensemble in some cases still attached to drip- stands.

     It is set in the geriatric wards of a small Yorkshire community hospital, afflicted by “bed blockers” in substantial numbers because there are no care home places and families cannot or will not cope.  It’s a facility which the Minister for Health plans to close (“we don’t like small, we don’t like cosy..the state should not be seen to work”).  His pet management consultant (Samuel Barnett) an escaped local lad turned nervy gay Lycraboy, is also visiting his miner Dad, a cantankerous Jeff Rawle,  while a local TV crew prowls around, the puffed-up Trust Chairman Salter (Peter Forbes) grandstands with statements like Yesterday is the New Tomorrow, and David Moorst does an appallingly, wickedly funny turn as a hostile and gormless work-experience porter.

     But enough of the blokes: the heart and glory of the show is female.  There’s Deborah Findlay’s wearily efficient nurse whose idea of success is a “dry ward” (it’s a very urinary and bowel-haunted piece) and whose demeanour hides much.  But above all there is a  gorgeous collection of wry or wandering old ladies : Patricia England as Mavis the ex dancer, Julia Foster a vital driver of the plot, ex librarian, Jacqueline Clarke the Batley Nightingale – all eight are gems in drooping cottons, the deathless Bennett  lines well divided among them. They sing, they sort of dance, they reflect on life and death and sex and men.  Sue Wallace’s Hazel lays siege to poor Ambrose the cultured schoolteacher as barriers of class and taste melt in the universal doom of decrepitude.  And of irritatingly continuing existence: “it isn’t Death who has jaws, it’s Life”. 

     It’s resolution is not one to spoil, except to say that Mr Bennett has perhaps by chance hit two topical news hot-potatoes – barely a week old -even while deliberately tackling more obvious fave targets like NHS cuts and the Thatcher legacy. But the strength of the evening is that there are wider,  older, inescapable  themes: ageing, pathos, tenderness, moral equivalence, peristaltic progress and progress chasing, in and out of the bowel…and the indomitable spirit that dances and sings in the last gutter, because why the hell wouldn’t you?

Box office.  to 29 Sept

Rating. Four. 4 Meece Rating



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