Monthly Archives: August 2018



COPENHAGEN      Minerva, Chichester

               The excitement of scientists transcends borders and forges passionate alliances and gratitudes.  But how can it,  when a devastating new power hovers at the edge of human understanding,  and warring nations might  use it?  In the 1920s and 30s nuclear science was roaring ahead:   physicists across Europe  met at conferences, talked, argued, teased out discoveries about energy and light and waves and particles, rejoiced in the new alchemy.    Then came Hitler’s war: hard to be a friend across hostile borders,  tantalizing to  wonder what progress old colleagues are making.

          Michael Frayn’s wonderful, tense,  humane play is about two such friends.   The German Werner Heisenberg had riskily supported Einstein’s theoretical work  (dismissed as “Jewish science”)  but despite being sneered at as a “White Jew” for it,  was tolerated as a valuable asset , unlike others such as Einstein himself.   But in 1941  Heisenberg visited his old friend Niels Bohr and his wife in Copenhagen.     Nobody knows why.   But both were working on nuclear fission,  the key to what became the horror of Hiroshima.    

        In a bare circle of light  we see the two men and Margrethe Bohr as ghosts in an afterlife,  talking out why he might have come, enacting three versions of that evening.  It is awkward, of course: Denmark was under harsh Nazi occupation, Bohr being watched.  But they had been friends, Heisenberg almost an extra son to the couple: they worked together,  walked, skied,  took Bohr’s children to the beach, . Warm laughter flares in reminiscence. But why did he come?  What was said on the brief walk , from which Bohr came back angry?  DId the German come to warn, to ask advice scientific or ethical,   or to fish for information the Allied nuclear programme?   Did Germany fail to make the atom Bomb and devastate London and Paris because of  a scientist’s moral scruples,  or because of his failure to make a key calculation in kilogrammes?


      Frayn cannot answer.  But round go the conversations:  Paul Jesson a peppery, patriarchal Bohr,  Charles Edwards as Heisenberg:  perfect in his fading boyishness, movingly awkward, loving his fatherland but aware of its evil.  Patricia Hodge is a devastating Margarethe,   sardonically observing the men and outspokenly aware of the horror they might unleash by taking the idea fission one step further.  They both talk complementarity, particle uncertainty,  chain reactions, critical mass, old arguments.   She says flatly,  “The shining springtime of the 1920s produced a machine to kill every man, woman and child in the world”. 

      The play, perfectly realized here, is neat in physics metaphors, profound in ethical philosophy, sharp and sometimes funny in its human insight.    But it is more than clever. When the three ghosts at last stand in the circle of  dimming light,  you shed a tear.  Not just for the horror that science unleashed on us,  but for human love,  curiosity, and  the burden which politicians place on innocent scientists who only want to know…  

to 22 sept


THE RISE AND FALL OF LITTLE VOICE            Park Theatre, N

We’ve just had Edward and Freddie Fox as father and son in an Ideal Husband, so now here’s a mother and daughter in Jim Cartwright’s tale of a drunken mother and her boyfriend,  who exploit a girl’s gift for singing like the divas.    Rafaella Hutchinson  is  LV – “Little Voice” –  nicknamed for her shyness.  She is grieving for her dead father, tending his previous vinyl collection and channelling the pain and yearning of the songs.     When she sings “The man who got away”, hairs rise on your neck.    But face to face with the boorish agent (Kevin McMonagle splendid in a bad brown suit),  she is a terrified, damaged rabbit, shoved at a club microphone in an exploded-custard frock, abused until she explodes.    

         Hutchinson  has a fine voice and air of inward sorrow, but it must be admitted that if anyone carries the show it is her Mum:   Sally George as Marie: a  crazy, slaggy, high-voltage menace . She enters with a shriek,  lurches round the set and summons her lover with “Coom on, let’s roll around!”  She’s  a victim too: dead-end job,   toy of careless men,  frustratedly uncomprehending of her quiet late husband, and afflicted by so much destructive unfocused energy that a few years later she’d be on Ritalin.    But she is also a classic monster.

          With Jane Horrocks as LV it became a hit film with its themes of showbiz, manipulation and family misery.   But in this small space, as the crackling house wiring becomes tacky club lights,  what you feel more intimately is the howling emotional need for beauty.  Even big slobby Sadie , the mother’s neighbour and doormat, is briefly alone with the private singing,  and Jamie-Rose Monk gets  two real, fat tears rolling down her cheeks.  Sweet young Billy the telephone engineer  (Linford Johnson) finds his beauty in light,  the Blackpool illuminations.  In the final moments amid the ashes, song and light come together to take LV over the rainbow.  Lovely. 

too 22 sept     rating four 

SWEET CHARITY              Watermill Theatre,  Nr Newbury


     It’s a hot night at the Fandango club, the dance-hostesses thrusting and beckoning, belting out “Hey big spender!”. It’s business, not love.  Except for little Charity Hope Valentine,  who soldiers on trustfully seeking true love,   armed only with a belting voice and unquenchable humour.   Gemma Sutton is a pocket phenomenon,  sweet-faced and resolutely optimistic in  contrast to her taller, mockingly comradely colleagues (flame-haired Vivien Carter is  one to watch: a sarcastic, sardonic Nickie).  Paul Hart’s cast are an ever-moving  orchestra of actor-musicians:    sexy on the  sax, , foxy on the flute , tearing  it with a trumpet.  They wheel around the tiny stage, reflecting the aggressive sexy poses of the original Bob Fosse choreography (despite its  more sentimental edge, this 1966 show by Neil Simon and Cy Coleman is a clear cousin of Chicago).  There are neat musical jokes : an instrument suddenly handed to a character in the nick of time for their solo, bad boyfriend Charlie with a piccolo as Charity follows him round the stage like one of the Pied Piper’s rats.  


        When I saw it in the West End my companion left at the interval,  saying that musicals were all very well but“Why must they make a song and dance about everything”.   She had a point. For all its brassy exuberance, the first half keeps erupting into big numbers without moving the story on,  except for an empty farcical sequence where Charity hides in a film star’s closet.  But the love story develops with the Woody-Allenish geek boyfriend Oscar,  as a neat set of mirrored walls rolls us from place to place making us a club audience or comrades in  the dressing-room.    

         In the original Fellini film the heroine was a streetwalker, who he described as “fragile, tender and unfortunate” (some chaps like their women that way).  Neil Simon’s cleverness is in making her funny and tougher,   laughing  at “the fickle finger of fate”, bobbing up like a cork in the sour swamp of  gropey men.     Although Hart has updated it to  now, it hardly needs that.  There will always be sexiness for sale  – “We don’t dance. We defend ourselves to music” says Nickie.  Girls will always get “stuck in the flypaper of life”.  Here’s to them all. 

too 18 sept    

rating three



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EMILIA Shakespeare’s Globe, SE1



     The Globe has had some tremendous new-writing about history, for which it is nicely suited.  Remember Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn and  Dr Scroggy’s War, or Jessica Swayle’s fine Nell Gwyn and Bluestockings.    This latest one, commissioned by Michelle Terry from Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, is not in that class.  Which is a great pity, because the theme is intriguing and useful:  the too-long-tolerated invisibility of women as writers and thinkers.  



       It deals with Emilia Bassano Lanier (thought by some to be Shakespeare’s Dark Lady  of the sonnets, unless that was a bloke, as others opine).   What we know of her is scarce:  daughter of a Italian court musician,  mistress and protegée of a Lord Chamberlain and later married for convenience, she published a religious text aimed at women – Salve Deus Rex Iudaeorum – with strong and laudable attitudes to her sex.  She may conceivably have met Shakespeare.  The astrologer Simon Forman was rude about her.   And that’s about it. 


But the author, and director Nicole Charles, regard this lack of facts as freeing  and make the most of it. Their Emilia is played by three women, Leah Harvey, Clare Perkins and Vinette Robinson, with Perkins a declamatory, narrating old-woman version and the others as younger selves.  Their Emilia speaks her mind from childhood onwards, defies the ludicrously caricatured capering men of the court to their faces,  as she does the more conventional, crinolined court ladies.  She meets the young Shakespeare (a spirited Charity Wakefield), becomes his lover and tells him about women.  He offers to ‘pour you into my work and immortalize your soul” and she snarls “I don ’t want your platform, I want mine”.    She  utters lines like “ I cannot heave my heart into my mouth” which he promptly nicks,  so she gets furious.  When  his Emilia-and-Desdemona scene is on stage she rampages amid the groundlings shouting for her rights of authorhood.  She berates him when he tries to “mansplain” the craft of writing (hoots and cheers from a very ‘woke’ audience at all these points). 


  She befriends the poor washerwomen and prostitutes of Bankside after they rescue her from drowning (in a still very clean bra-slip)  and decides to educate them.   She runs a risk of being burnt at a witch, and one  friend is.   She finally gets her pamphlets about women’s equality published by disguising them as religious works.  


     The play creaks beneath  its burden of feminist ideology , underlined in the programme by Shami Chakrabarti and an excitable essay by Deborah Frances-White,  who feels familiar enough with the eluxive historical Emilia to call her “a poet, a class warrior and champion of women – but she knew how to party..shagged loads of people”) .   And as if  the feminist line was not enough, as the three Emilias are women of colour  we get another theme of the plight of immigrants.  The heroine embraces modern victimhood-identification  language and complains about “not belonging” due to being Italian by ancestry.  She   demands to be judged by virtues not inheritance,  and mourns over an exotic seed-pod on the riverbank which will never grow in “a land unforgiving”.  Though in fact Elizabethan London was more than open –  to Europeans like her at least – and awash with active and successful immigrants .   The paranoia is underlined as Lady Katherine Howard tells her that her sort take jobs from English workers.  Clunking?   Very.   


     It’s an undercooked, issue-driven play.  The Emilias in particular are fine performers,   but mainly given only shouty rants as lines;  the language is banal and plodding,   veering between brief archaisms like “I care not”  and Blackadderish slang and “That’s a bit weird innit?”.   Thus whenever the odd real line from Shakespeare crops up,   it is like an unexpected orchid in an arid lawn.  Everyone is encouraged to caper cartoonishly, a la Horrible histories.  There is little light and shade,  no sense of real interaction with men except once with Shakespeare,  and just whenever you start to identify with the two younger Emilias,  the older one powers in to interrupt with another diatribe. Concluding, in the final moments, with a ranting  paean to all female anger and hostility towards men responsible for our ongoing slavery. Her final injunction is “burn the whole fucking house down!”.  


      Look, I wanted to like it. I wanted it to be good, embrace some subtlety, open doors on the past.  It is perfectly true that women have been sidelined and silenced over centuries, and  I liked stage-Emilia’s view  (in one of the few good lines) that to succeed we have needed to be “tricksters, shape-shifters,  upstream swimmers” .   But  to my real dismay,  as the evening went on all shouty and furious and improbable,   despite the first-night laughs and acclamations I felt less and less sympathetic towards the cause.    

to 1 Sept

rating two  2 meece rating


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THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford upon Avon




There is a swimming-pool ladder, a rubber-ring shaped like a swan, a robotic golf cart, some decorative flamingos (one used as a weapon) , and a statue of Queen Elizabeth I. Who is heard offstage, – as tradition says she did – ordering a sleepy Shakespeare to revive the character of Sir John Falstaff. In Henry V the fat knight is only mentioned as having died, “babbling o’green fields”, after being denied in IV Pt 2 by the newly virtuous young King and ordered to “get to his prayers”. So by royal order there was this comedy prequel, and another outing for the talents of the clown Will Kemp.

Director Fiona Laird (who also composed the splendid renaissance-disco score) makes the wise decision to go for broke with every kind of lark, and to give designer Lez Brotherston free rein with neon-edged skeleton revolving houses and a loony, diversely anachronistic set of mad costumes. Rugby socks, random kilts, slashed Elizabethan pantaloons pinstriped and worn over modern trousers. Mistress Ford is poured into a multicoloured super-spangled catsuit, and a leopardprint Hostess sports an unforgettable cleavage. Laird has cast the splendidly fearless David Troughton as the fat knight and padded him to within an inch of his life. Over that immensity his costumes too, whether tennis, golf, hippie drag or bestial furs are beyond panto: indeed I notice in unsteady writing at the bottom of one page of my notebook the words BLIMEY, FALSTAFF’S CODPIECE…”.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that every six years or so the RSC pretty much has to return to this merry farce, and lark around once more with fat-suit and laundry-basket. The challenge is both to make it new (in this case the laundry-basket is a wheelie-bin, with suitably artful adjustments to the original text) and to keep it moving. Last time round, despite Desmond Barritt’s glorious tweedy Falstaff, my review quoted an audience member sadly saying ““There’s an awful lot of admin, isn’t there, before you get to the jokes”. Indeed the triple-wooing of Anne Page and the cozening duel between Parson Hugh and Dr Caius can feel wordy and distancing to a modern audience.

Laird’s tactic to stop this happening is to give wild licence to everyone – and I do mean everyone – to overdo it with glee. You decide that nothing can upstage Jonathan Cullen’s comedy Frenchman Dr Caius (“quelle catastrophe ce Brexit..let me speak a word in your arrrse”) and his interchange with the busty hostess proffering “pardon croissant voulez vous coucher avec le cassoulet”. There you are, thinking that what with that , and Luke Newberry’s Fenton falling over all the time and Tim Samuels as a rather camp Shallow, this really is turning into panto, O yes it is, all we need is a singalong… Whereon along comes David Acton as Pastor Hugh , and leads us all in a couple of lines of Bread of Heaven. And then it’s time for the magnificently circular Falstaff himself to attempt a run-up at the wheelie-bin, to a drumroll, and get covered with malodorous steaming rubbish and carted off by manservants who appear to be conversing in Bulgarian , or maybe Russian, with surtitles.

A great pleasure of Laird’s production, ceaselessly funny and over-the-top, is that it reminds you that Shakespeare is the honoured ancestor of a hundred sitcoms. Caius is pure ‘Allo ‘Allo, Rebecca Lacey’s Mistress Page has moments of Sybil Fawlty, while her friend Ford has a definite Miss Brahms moment and another, when acting-out the trickery on Falstaff, remniscent of Eth from Take it from Here. Falstaff himself ,in drag, even offers an unShakespearian hommage to Dick Emery with “ooh you are awful, but I like you”. Again wisely, Laird appoints Toby Park of Spymonkey as physical-comedy director. This is a man who knows , to the finest detail, exactly how to trap a fat man in a codpiece under a sun-lounger.

The panto mood, however, does not extinguish proper RSC respect: the set-piece deception scenes are skilful – especially between Troughton’s fat rogue and Vince Leigh’s suspicious Ford disguised in a Russian hat, dodgy accent, and plastic nose ’n specs set. Nor do we lose that brief electric moment when the comedy slows for a brief moment and the Fords face one another: he suspicious, she denying. And for all t her skintight spangles there is a frisson, an echo of all those other chaste accused women: Desdemona, Hero, Hermione.
But only for a moment. We still have many larks to come. And are grateful for them. As Mr Punch would say (his ancestry is in there too) “That’s the way to do it!”.


box office to 5 Jan
rating five. Because being daftly funny is harder than it looks.

5 Meece Rating


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GREEK Arcola, E8


Like the roar of an older, bolder London, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s GREEK bounces snarling onto the Grimeborn stage, celebrating its thirtieth anniversary in the first ever revival of its world premiere production for Munich and ENO, directed both then and now by Jonathan Moore. The significant privilege of reviving such an iconic production of this groundbreaking work with the original creative team (Turnage himself has been attending rehearsals) has given Grimeborn its jewel for this year’s festival, and the Arcola easily one of the hottest opera tickets in London this summer. But this is no historical re-enactment: GREEK is as raw, angry and daring as ever, and the production feels boxfresh. While references to the social tensions of the Eighties (overflowing bins, unemployment, strikes and riots) still express the ‘state of plague’ in “this seething heap of world,” Moore works in touches of today: the London Riots, mobile phones, and wifi, while a huge graffiti wall beside the stage (a giant painted lightbox, used to screen projections of police brutality and civil unrest) proclaims HIPSTERS OUT! Dalston – you heard.

On a black lacquered stage tantalisingly bare of props, framed by a square of piped, colour-changing light running from floor to ceiling, the action unfolds with visceral immediacy. Designer Baśka Wesołowska produces a clear playing space where Moore creates violent aggression with superbly controlled choreography: fights are brilliantly dislocated across the stage, Eddy and his combatants landing (and realistically receiving) coordinated punches from a distance. Immaculate attention to detail is everywhere: as the orchestra tune up, Eddy attempts to enter the theatre, but is thrown out summarily by security. Moments later, he explodes into the auditorium to tell us his hideous story.

Lithe with physical menace as a young hoodlum, gracefully tense as an older, successful man who nevertheless feels he has more to prove, Edmund Danon’s Eddy is spot on: his London accent perfect, his baritone already richly tender, but capable of scorn and challenge, he seems born for this part, sliding from speech to song with confident command, and exploring the arrogance, fastidiousness and impetuousness of his accursed character with skill. Laura Woods is magnetic as his Wife (and Sis), her mezzo of liquid fullness, her hungry longing for her lost child heartbreaking, their erotic connection thoroughly disturbing. Philippa Boyle’s Mum is a tour de force of versatile character acting, her soprano lyrically expressive, while Richard Morrison’s Dad seethes with fragile machismo: the libretto, adapted from Berkoff’s play by Turnage and Moore, interleaves London slang with historical phrases, producing a Clockwork Orange mosaic which builds its own mythological atmosphere, and Boyle and Morrison in particular use a dazzlingly wide range of vocal styles to deepen this effect. A bowl of blood produces a deliciously grisly eye-gouging scene, but the shocks don’t end there, the opera remaining irrepressibly punk to the last. Turnage’s score, vividly delivered by the Kantanti Ensemble with crisp conducting from Tim Anderson, is astonishing: brimming with visual images, perfectly catching the cadence and textures of the London soundscape, setting words with unfailing clarity, combining mastery and humour like a gangster who grips you by the throat while slapping you conspiratorially on the back.

GREEK’s thrusting, vicious defiance feels like a blast from a braver, riper creative moment. It’s dark, edgy, bloody, and disturbing. It isn’t for the faint-hearted: snowflakes may sob with woke anxiety into their ironic gender-neutral moustaches. For the rest of us, it’s a clarion call of what art can, should and must provoke.

Presented by the Arcola Theatre as part of Grimeborn 2018, with generous support from the Grimeborn Funders’ Circle

Until 18 August. Box office: 020 7503 1646 or online here

Rating: Five 5 Meece Rating

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HYMN TO LOVE Jermyn St Theatre WC2



  I grew up with Piaf, a temporary French schoolchild in 1960, skated around the patinoire with my friends snarling along with the endless plays of  “Je ne regrette rien!”, at an age with nothing much yet to regret.  No singer – not the young Francoise Hardy lisping Tous les Garcons,  certainly not Les Compagnons de la Chanson, eclipsed the continuing late-career  power of the “little sparrow”.  The romance of street-acrobat’s kid raised among prostitutes, singing for a few sous on the pavements, entertaining troops on both sides in WW2, was only part of it: it was the gravelly voice, the autobiographical ferocity and power and plaintive street-wisdom of the storytelling in her songs that held us, even at the age of nine.   


         So I felt nervous of  seeing Elizabeth Mansfield’s solo performance, not least because Annie Castledine and Steve Trafford have translated the songs (all but one, we’ll come to that..).   The translations are actually excellent,  though I miss “une fille du port, une ombre dans la rue”.  And most importantly   it is a fine, and sparing,  script,  set in bursts of rehearsal-room reminiscence , sorrow or flashback (a haunted telephone gives a good odd moment) .  She recalls the death of her greatest lover the boxer Marcel;  shouts a little at her pianist (Patrick Bridgman),  gradually  fires up, song by song,  to the moment of her last US performance.



     In the plain black dress and clumping shoes,  Mansfield is at moments the eternal timeworn resolute figure of any concierge booth in old France;  at others a star of instant ferocity and musical passion.  With the slight stoop and the worn, passionate manner  she catches that Piaffian “howl of  a wounded animal”, and that pose which sometimes forgets the cabaret gesticulations and keeps her hands on her thighs “like lizards on a rock” as she did in fear at her first audition.  


    There are 13 songs –  of dissipation, prostitution and  headlong reckless love, of tenderness for a lost legionnaire or accordioniste.  But always  “Ecoutez la musique!”.    Faint cloudy projections behind her in the tiny theatre resolve into newsreel footage of her Marcel and herself.  Finally there is the unforgettable, the untranslatable, the final  Je Ne Regrette Rien.  In French. And the illusion is complete, and Piaf walks the pavements and the stages once more.  A phenomenal 90 minutes.  


box office     to 18 sept. Best get in there quick.

rating four   

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Lucia di Lammermoor is an opera of shocking brutality, with savage emotional aggression rivalling physical violence throughout its fast-paced plot. Fulham Opera’s reduction for Grimeborn brings Donizetti’s dark, doomed characters to vivid life with some glorious principal singers, supported by a dramatic piano accompaniment from Ben Woodward. Foremost is Alberto Sousa’s passionate, difficult Edgardo, a man torn between his sworn vengeance on the scheming Ashtons and his love for their daughter Lucia: the intimate setting of Arcola’s Studio 2 (rather too small for this production) only magnifies the supreme emotional and musical detail of Sousa’s harrowing, exhilarating performance. Snapping at Sousa’s heels is a magnificently cruel Enrico from Ashley Mercer, able to throw grit or gossamer over his penetrating bass-baritone in a brilliantly dramatic performance which proves bel canto also works with serious attitude. Nicola Said’s Lucia copes with Donizetti’s challenging soprano writing, producing a ravishing “Egli è luce ai giorni miei”, the very image of a headstrong teenager in love, and a musically lyrical Mad Scene; Said’s Lucia is a lost little girl in a vortex of male vendetta, a not unjustified interpretation, though her acting can flicker when silent. Rebekah Jones’ handwringing Alisa, Simon Grange’s anxious Raimondo and John Wood’s wonderfully clear Arturo complete the picture.

The emotional and musical success of this production, however, is countered by practical glitches. The surtitles misbehaved throughout on opening night, and Jim Manganello’s screened translation is ungenerously brusque with Cammarano’s libretto. Daniel Farr’s lighting is surprisingly clunky, and Anna Yates’ design isn’t helpful: Lammermuir Castle seems to be a messy building site, with pointless minor scene-fiddling delaying the action, while costumes are contemporary, but similarly incoherent. Lucia has a fit of teenage sulks in pyjama bottoms and slippers, but mysteriously later remembers to put on shoes (!) and a man’s (bloodstained) shirt for her mad scene: are we supposed to imagine she allowed Arturo to rape her, then dressed herself in his shirt and only then stabbed him? This is an opera where sides are a matter of life and death, and Donizetti moves the plot so fast that we need to conceptualise and believe Lucia’s predicament quickly, usually conveyed through design, but the main difference between Enrico and Edgardo here is suit versus Barbour: hardly murder territory. The chorus start in anoraks, more Neighbourhood Watch than gangland acolytes; their presence is never fully legitimised on stage by designer or director, and becomes particularly confusing as they pretend to be Edgardo’s ancestors, then rise up and tell him about Lucia’s fate, a zombie interpretation at odds with the libretto. Director Sarah Hutchinson’s management (or lack of it) of the chorus is a perennial issue, as is her disorganised placing of characters on stage: this close-quarters production offers us a rare, intimate perspective on the finely-honed structure of Lucia di Lammermoor, with its many private parallels and fascinating internal reflections, but we can’t detect that in the stagecraft, which leaves the Fulham Opera Chorus weak and exposed, and puts too much on the shoulders of its admittedly fine principals.

Presented by Fulham Opera

At the Arcola Theatre, Dalston as part of Grimeborn 2018 until 11 August

Box office: 020 7503 1646 or online here (returns only)

Rating: Three 3 Meece Rating

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Brian Friel’s gift is humane ambiguity, refusing to allow  tidy judgements on his characters .  Or even – though his theme is Ireland’s history  -on the social structures they inhabit.  Here the ‘great house’ and family above humble Ballybeg, now reaching decrepitude in he 1970s,  is not a Protestant Ascendancy mansion lording it over the Catholic peasantry.     It is something rarer, more tribally cramped: a once affluent Catholic family ,  one of those who rose after the 1829 Act of Emancipation through the legal profession .   Now in four generations it has fallen,   from a  Victorian Chief-Justice down  to a county judge and finally a failed solicitor, the nervy, fantasising Casimir.     As Eamon the outsider (a spirited Emmet Kirwan)  cruelly observes, the next logical step down should be to a criminal.


So they belong neither to the old Anglo-Irish ruling class nor to the ordinary people of Ballybeg: theirs is an isolated grandeur. All the siblings were sent off at seven to board, the absent Anna is a nun in Africa;  a brother and sister  ran off to fight in the Civil Rights battles over the border in the North.   But Judith has come back, after surrendering an illegitimate child to a nunly orphanage.  She is nursing   their confused and angry tyrant of a father, whose rants  we hear over a baby-alarm on the wall, and watching over Claire the youngest (a touching Aisling Loftus) whose musical career was thwarted by her father and who, depressed and nervous, is heading for marriage to an ageing widower.      Casimir, named for a Polish saint, claims a possibly invented family life in Hamburg;    alcoholic Alice alone mixed with the village and married Eamon, whose granny was a maid in the Hall.



     If this back-story sounds cumbersome I am wholly to blame. Friel as usual delivers it with casual pinpoint delicacy,  dropping clues, as they gather together in the crumbling house for the wedding and, it turns out, a funeral.   Director Lyndsey Turner is adept at bringing Friel’s world to life with spare, haunting precision: it is set on a clear stage , though Es Devlin’s design makes great effect with a fragmented mural finally torn loose, and  a miniature dollhouse around which the family legends of old-posh-Catholicism are related to a visiting historian.   On this spot GK Chesterton fell over while impersonating Lloyd George, here Gerard Manly Hopkins spilled tea while reciting the wreck of the Deutschland, here Belloc sat, or Newman, or the Papal Count crooner John McCormack….using the tiny house emphasises the futility of it all,  as fragments of past glories are rattled out by Casimir in a stunning, sad, tense performance by David Dawson.  His impossible memory of Yeats’ eyes, and the moment when he claims his   grrandfather heard Chopin play at Balzac’s birthday party in Paris while he was avoiding the Famine fever are with awkward tact  questioned by the American visiting historian.  You wince. 


Casimir is at the heart of the play, the most damaged, his bullied inner child flailing for past glories.  Eamon at first mocks them, yet in the end he  too needs the Great House, with a startling, perceptive Irish plaint :  ”Peasants…we were ideal for colonising”he cries despairingly “there’s something in us that needs the aspiration”.   Elaine Cassidy gives his wife Alice a fragile, angry misery, and David Ganly as Willie Diver, who farms their bog and rocky land,   brings a baffled fond solidity.  But the ensemble, the real sense of interlocking relationships,   is what brilliantly locks you in to this damaged world.  


     Calling Friel the Irish Chekhov is trite now. But it is all there: the grandeur and delusion, the pull of a half-invented past, the drink and despair, the  half -lives and lies, hope and the humour .    And at last, redemptive, an unexpected harmony.  


Box Office 0844 871 7624  to 22 sept

rating  four   4 Meece Rating

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BRING IT ON Southwark Playhouse SE1



Here’s a hot one, in every sense.  Clapped till my hands stuck together at this youthful, truthful, touching and funny tale of acrobatics, acting-up and capital-A Attitude.   With Hamilton the city’s hottest ticket it was sharp work by Southwark to host this earlier musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda (with Amanda Green and Tom Kitt for extra lyrics and music).   A very room-where-it-happens bit of programming, it has all Miranda’s gift for words and for sudden lyrical slowdowns between rock explosions and rappy rhymes (Glitter/ Twitter/bitter…Pastime/shake-yo-ass time). Not 18c politics this time which drive it, but the featherlight yet anguished world of teenage ambition.

It was inspired – with many tweaks – by a Kirsten Dunst movie, one of those US high-school tales which exert such a powerful fascination on this side of the Atlantic (think School of Rock, Clueless etc: and HEATHERS  looming next month in the West End). Teen passions being strong, the genre is a  a grand way to explore ambition, betrayal, leadership, failure, friendship, class, race, redemption and – in this case rather beautifully – forgiveness. St Trinian’s, only with better legs and morals.

Campbell (Robyn McIntyre) has beaten her rival in senior year Skylar to captain the school cheerleading squad (“Truman girls, superhuman girls”) with its shiny- haired moppets, hunky jocks  and the marginalised, hopeful, chubbier girl Bridget humbly cavorting as mascot in a parrot-suit.  Young Campbell runs a tight ship, informing new recruit Eva that it is like joining the Marines, “you sign your life away”.



But to her dismay she gets transferred to the rougher and more diverse Jackson School , up the road, where the cheerleaders were disbanded years earlier .   Bridget, an endearing Kristine Kruse with a belting voice and proper scene-stealing funnybones, touchingly assists the prim, preppy middle class Campbell because she has lots of “experience in not fitting in”. But Jackson school, which scorns the ultra-white robotic wholesomeness of cheerleader squads, has a hip-hop crew instead and takes Bridget to its heart. Fabulous they are in their diverse energy: notably glorious Danielle (Chisara Agor) who flips burgers at night and burns with ambition and proud scorn. And among the boys La Cienga (Matthew Brazier) is a long skinny streak of androgyne attitude in a sharp Mohican, minikilt and bare tummy . They make Campbell earn her cred and come down a peg by wearing a humiliating leprechaun suit. Betrayed by her former schoolmates and sore at her loss of cheer-champ ambition,  she then talks them into trying for the national contest and attempting the  “cheer face” instead of the hip-hop scowl of defiance.

It goes well, then badly, then well again in the classic romcom pattern, though self-discovery and friendship not romance are to the fore.  Wonderful soft rock numbers turn up between the vivid hip hop , notably Danielle’s anthem of forgiveness and Haroun Al-Jeddal’s “Enjoy the Trip” as he persuades the unhappy heroine that teenage disasters are not lifelong.  But always just when you fear it might get saccharine there always comes a real joke – a look, a line, a number, a Bridget moment or a Lin-Manuel line – which has you laughing and punching the air. It’s a lovely thing. And it’s a youth production by the British Theatre Academy, which offers accessible theatre training for under-23s. If BTA keeps on releasing onto the dramatic scene performers this adept, joyful, determined, humorous and (yesterday) amazingly heatproof, salute it.


box office 020 7407 0234 to 1 Sept
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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Prometheus stole fire from the gods in order to ensure human progress, and met with a grisly eternal punishment as a reward: Zeus’ eagle devouring his liver daily. Keith Burstein’s new opera The Prometheus Revolution attempts to engage with this Greek myth through a story of modern-day capitalism and revolt. Peter (Alex Haigh) redirects two trillion pounds from the City to the Prometheus Peace Movement, revivifying a socially rebellious organisation which he founded, but left to become a successful banker or deep undercover rebel agent: his erstwhile partner in the Prometheus Movement, Aaron (Robert Garland), can’t be sure which, as the (mainly sexual) tensions of their youth threaten to break the Movement apart just as civil war finally gets going. Fulham Opera field a dazzlingly strong young cast to give Burstein’s opera its world premiere; singing is lyrical and compelling throughout, piano accompaniment from Ben Woodward richly expressive, direction from Sophie Gilpin clear and clever. Sunny Smith’s pared-down, efficient design uses a grid of steel ropes on a platform in the centre of the playing space to suggest the glass and steel of a City office, or a prison cell; the addition of blinds, swags or banners suggests meeting rooms, hotel balconies and Movement HQ. However, despite music, design and direction all being on point, The Prometheus Revolution is a severe test of performance, and ultimately only the strength, charm and skill of Fulham Opera’s company carries us through this piece. The opera is unfortunately stymied by its weak, derivative and repetitive libretto, which loses sight of its myth early on: the point of Prometheus’ rebellion was the foundation of human technology, a revolutionary achievement enhancing life for billions and possibly worth an eternity of pain for one. We never hear of Peter’s trillions accomplishing anything useful or tangible for anybody. Nor is his punishment permanent (a quick death, stabbed by a spurned lover and a political rival).

This is an opera which constantly tells you what it is doing without ever actually doing it, nor showing you why it needs doing. Though we get endless sloganising about peace, love, truth, equality and so on, we never quite understand what the Movement truly entails. It certainly includes universal love, mainly focused in Peter: everyone (it seems) is passionately jealous of Peter’s sexual favours, and his relationship history is trotted endlessly around the stage like a tired beach pony. Nor can we perceive what social evil they are fighting, beyond generalised comments about the State not respecting the individual. The libretto lurches from cliché to cliché, repeating characters’ names endlessly without establishing any credible inner life, indeed repeating itself generally. Gender dynamics are exceptionally dated, with men making all key decisions while women coo admiringly, smoulder tactically or plot jealous revenge. The plot is so dense that no action can find any emotional context, bashing ever onward with all the subtlety of handwritten capitals in thick black permanent pen, despite a cast who can act their socks off and cope magnificently with its leanest opportunities for expression, even when Burstein (regularly) sets text of one mood to music of quite another. Caroline Carragher’s Wona is outstanding; James Schouten’s Des, brilliantly vivid; Nick Dwyer’s oily Zapruder, eye-catchingly charismatic. Burstein’s inconsistent, lumpily quote-laden score (the ghost of “Nessun Dorma” becoming ever more curiously insistent as we reach the underwhelming finale) doesn’t honestly deserve them.

Fulham Opera’s upcoming Grimeborn Lucia di Lammermoor (already sold out) is the hotter ticket. But what they achieve with this piece is seriously impressive, given its flaws.


Presented by Fulham Opera

At the Arcola Theatre, Dalston as part of Grimeborn 2018 until 10 August

Box office: 020 7503 1646 or online here

Rating: two 2 meece rating



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You’re not often given a  surprise by Lane the butler in in his short appearance,  as he delivers those immortally celebrated cucumber sandwiches to the piano-strumming young master Algernon.  But when Algy has given him a couple of kisses, hand and lips, lit his  cigarette for him and sat down matily beside his gentleman’s gentleman to listen to Jack,  you think again.  And you couldn’t choose better for  Lane than Geoffrey Freshwater: a dubious, battered paternal figure, serving himself a sherry and maintaining a classic RSC deadpan expression on those senatorial features.  Algernon may be about to pursue Cecily, but as marriage material…? Well, Oscar was, and loved his sons, so fair enough.


It has been a Wilde year, with Rupert Everett’s stunning film about the playwright’s last years and Dominic Dromgoole’s curated season at the Vaudeville: the last opening, An Ideal Husband, proving the crowning glory. It has been a  treat.  But this, Wilde’s epigrammatically nonsensical final squib , is the toughest task.


It is worth doing, though.    It  is almost an amoral parody of romantic comedy and has – if,  like director Michael Fentiman,  you look at it in the context of the author’s imminent downfall –  a real  whiff of sulphur round the edges.  Unlike in Wilde’s more probable plots, here we do not wish or need to imagine the future marriages of the young characters, based as they are  deliberately on  whimsy. And so well known are the top lines – the diaries, the HANDBAG, the muffins, the Fall of the Rupee etc – that there have been times, for all the deployment of Denche or Suchet quality, that you wish The Importance could be given a rest for fifty years or so, to come up fresh.  Indeed the last version  I wholeheartedly enjoyed was Joanna Carrick’s, framed as the memory of an old  butler and containing, among other joys, a unique  sense of guilty sexual chemistry between Prism and Chasuble…


But never mind. Fentiman’s cast got unforced guffaws on even the most well- expected lines, despite  an opening-night audience who must have known them. So there is a fair chance that a new generation coming to it will love it to bits.  Sophie Thompson has just the edge of  lunatic authority that one needs in Lady B, and Fiona Button is an absolutely glorious Cecily. Fehinti Balogun – on a West End debut – is the unnervingly sexually fluid Algernon, at first a little stilted but coming  into his own in the second scene as he saunters, louche and irresistible in a tilted hat, into Cecily’s sheltered life.  He eats muffins  to perfection and is, by then, very funny.


Jacob Fortune-Lloyd is Jack, more conventionally the Woosterish man about town and a nice foil to his cleverer friend.  And Fentiman’s grace-notes (heaps of tottering luggage, furious food-stuffing and diary-ripping, as well as the sexual ambiguities – keep the pace up. So yes, fun. Though I can’t think what Oscar’s audience would have said about Algy pinching Jack’s bum.


Box office 0330 333 4814. To  September

Rating. Three.


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LITTLE MERMAID. Underbelly Festival, S Bank SE1



Metta theatre’s hit JUNGLE BOOK was fashionably hip-hop before Hamilton hit  (and was certainly the only time I ever heard grime and crump bouncing  off the affronted walls of the Theatre Royal Windsor). But Poppy Burton-Morgan’s new one,  an updating and avenging  of Hans Christian Andersen’s sad fable, in circus dance and spare narration,  is of quite another tone.

      She has written and directed, and a fabulously lush romantic score by Matt Devereaux  serves her lyrics beautifully. It is played by onstage strings,  with at one point  the violinist hanging briefly by her feet from an aerial hoop. The fishtailed heroine’s songs are of yearning,  not only for the Prince she rescues,  but for learning and independence and a wider view. But there is rollicking earthbound jauntiness in the bossy court scene  – “he’ll only love you if you’re perfect” and in a marvellous swirling flashing shipwreck.  


     The movement is graceful but often witty as well: our adolescent mermaid sometimes touchingly uncertain for a moment, vulnerable. Aerial work , acrobatic lifts and the hoop make her struggles toward the surface feel rightly risky. Her downfall, mute and doomed, to a dark seabed is lit by juggled lightballs becoming snakes and monster eyes. The children around me were as rapt as their adults.  


       But it is as I said an updating, a  century on from Andersen. His little mermaid has (rather than becoming sea foam) gone down to the seabed as the Sea Witch. Rupert Jenkyn Jones does terrifyIng giant hoop  cartwheels in ragged flounces, casting the spell which gives the daughter of a century  later human legs and muteness.  His bitter fury in movement is unnerving. The children gasped. 


    But sisterhood and goodness this time prevail without resorting to Andersen’s airy soulfulness -we are in the fifties, with flowered rubber swimming caps on the nimble mermaid-acrobats. Women are toughening up in public. And, to the satisfaction of those of us who always wanted it, it is now the Prince’s turn to face a hard choice.


       Feminist revisitings are not always un-irritating. There, I’ve said it.  But this is skilful, charming, and lyrically beautiful in music, movement and Burton Morgan’s economical direction (75 minutes and you’re pirouetting back out to the Jubilee Gardens for a Pimms.).   


Box office to 12 Aug

0333 344 4167

Rating. Four4 Meece Rating

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OTHELLO. Shakespeare’s Globe Se1

GUEST CRITIC  and sharp-eyed millennial BEN BLACKMORE DOES THE STATE (well, theatrecat) SOME SERVICE….

Rating three   3 Meece Rating

box office  to 13 Oct

I have never seen Othello before — either on stage or film — so I wondered, as I took my perch in the sweaty tinderbox of the Globe on a sultry summer’s evening, how this would affect my ability to review. The micro-agressions fuelled by the Globe’s whittled stall seating are hard to overlook.During the Cypriot storm sequence a lady sitting behind me fainted, her head bowling into my back.


The first thing that became clear to me, once I recovered from the blow, is that we need to talk about costumes. The dress code for Othello is, for the most part, a bizarre, unwieldy marriage of military-issue boots and red berets, with rococo-finished ceremonial dress. The feel, in the opening salvo, is that of a band of mercenary bellhops on bank holiday. It’s not clear whether these people are about to launch an offensive or misplace your luggage.


And who thought it was a good idea to put Sir Mark Rylance, playing Iago, in an outfit — jaunty cap on an angle, sad droopy moustache — that made him look less like Shakespeare’s super villain and more like Super Mario.


Yet the first act garners a surprising amount of laughs, from Rylance with his deft patter, but particularly from Andre Holland, in the title role, inventing moments of comedy where before there were none.


Claire van Kampen’s production is accelerated; rapidity moving past alacrity into a sort of ‘can’t stop to chat or I’ll miss my train’ mode where the players are constantly coming and going, dashing off the stage only to return to finish their lines moments later.


This frenzy yields an oddly comic traction, as many lines are played for laughs or occasionally parcelled out to the audience for panto points. Reconciling this larky mood with a slow build towards tragedy proves increasingly elusive.

Mr Holland, of Moonlight fame, acquits himself well as Othello, playing the part in his native Alabama drawl and providing a much needed sense of cool collectedness. That said, I thought he fared better in the opening half, when he was mollifying the ‘green-eyed monster’ of jealousy rather than succumbing to it.


As to Mark Rylance, the last time he trod the boards here, he was largely suspended above them, being flown around in a Beckettian rendition of The Tempest. .  This production, directed by his wife and markedly removed from overwrought conceptualization, at first feels like a safer option. And yet, even by my novice standards, it was possible to see that the plum role of Iago had been taken to strange new places. Flying out of  the traps in scene one, Sir Mark is all diagonals: stealing slyly across the stage, slicing between pillars like a bishop on the chessboard. His movements all begin at the hip and, compounded by the  flying monkey bellhop costume, he vacillates from cheeky chappie to hyper-accelerated cartoon plumber.


If Rylance is what people came for, then Sheila Atim as Emilia surely be what one stays for. I can’t recall an actress of such ineffable magnetism, for whom language feels superfluous.She alone manages to weather the sartorial storm of baffling costume changes, which send her through an increasingly bombastic array of catsuits.

That she imbues the role with understated, devastating potency while wearing what looks to be an archive rive gauche Yves Saint Laurent mustard onesie, is testament to how beguiling a force she is; Emilia barely speaks for her first scene, but the way she moves expresses far more than words — and, unfortunately, with those costumes makes everyone else looks like bizarre off-cuts from The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Lacking a concerted build-up, the crucial strangling scene feels less savage than sterile. In her programme notes, Van Kampen said: ‘We felt we really wanted the audience to have most of their energy intact for the tragedy that happens right at theend of the play.’ However the trading of suspense for surprise is a gamble which ultimately doesn’t pay off.

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In a lovely dolls-house set,  Judy bustles about happily in a gay flouncy full skirt and pinny.  She  runs hubby’s morning bath, makes his packed lunch in a handled box ( no plastic) and trills up the stairs that she’s taken the top off his fresh- boiled egg.  Off to the office he goes, with hat and dutiful kiss.  Then getting  the first proper laugh of the evening,  wifey takes out a MacBook Air. She has to google the best way of shining taps with lemon-peel  and knocking up cheese straws and hellish devilled eggs for cocktail time.

For it is not actually 1953, except in Judy’s stubborn head.  She is, a century on,  a sort of negative of the domestically trapped heroine in Ibsen’s A Dolls House  . An anti-Nora. There’s even a  parallel door-slam at the end to be spotted by the theatresavvy ironists.


Laura Wade scored a big  hit when she wrote POSH,  which became the film Riot Club:   I was the exception, finding  its Bullingdon -Club hatefulness too much of a cartoon and its conclusion improbable. But it suited the easy-leftish  mood of the time and the rise of Coalition resentment, so good luck to its fans.   This time Wade’s gift for caricature is turned on a target  more interesting, and more attention is paid – though not entirely convincingly – to the characters’ real psychology.


    That target, the root of her heroine Judy’s disturbingly deluded lifestyle,  is the recent emergence of retro domestic-goddessry, that Bake-Off,  Cath-Kidstonian idea of ditching feminist striding to live the flowery 1950s dream.  She has -we learn a bit too slowly – rebelled against a feminist-commune hippie upbringing , given up a well- paid job and devoted herself to amassing retro housewares (I did admire the lacy bobble cloth on  the milk bottle) .  She loves to do  obsessive perfectionist housework before getting  lipsticked and “fresh as a daisy”  to greet John (the provider, “my rock, my Rock Hudson”)  back each day from his precarious job as an estate agent on commission. That this hobbyist lifestyle choice is economic nonsense becomes clear as the first act ends;  even more obvious that it  threatens his very survival in the modern world under a  sleek woman boss (Sara Gregory, foxily omincompetent).



Katherine Parkinson’s Judy is perfectly pitched, a staccato brittle sweetness overlaying timid rage and fear of  modernity; the hapless John (Richard Harrington)is sympathetic.  There is obvious fun to be had with the situation, though Tamara Harvey’s directorial flourish of having their friends Marcus and Fran  jiving round the set in related entr’actes palls a bit. There are some good laughs: the  absolute best is a grand long  rant in the second act when the magnificent Sian Thomas  as Judy’s mother explodes in contempt of her daughter’s  “gingham paradise”.   Nostalgia, she points out, used to be regarded as an illness.  And “the ‘fifties were terrible. Do you know how cold it was? everyone huddled round their own fireplace ‘cos everwhere else was freezing…Sudays that lasted a month, nothing open..greymeat, grey people, everything grey…and don’t expect not to be groped at work, that’s the least of your worries..”  It goes on.    One longs to shout “ encore!” and hear her do it again. Especially if the said 50s were one’s own early childhood, chilblains and all.  



       That is one of the few blasts of real, exasperated truthfulness.   Johnny’s sudden honesty is good too, as he pleads that in this prissy escapist make-believe to which he agreed,   they are only “performing” their marriage.   That could hit home in many relationships of the Instagram age.   But the play’s  construction – especially one  ill-placed brief flashback scene with no apparent reason unless to display a cunning set trick by Anna Fleischle -feels  clumsy. And  the feelgood ending hovers between being improbably saccharine and – because Parkinson really is superb – properly touching.  The problem for me is that as her eccentricity suggests for much of the play that she is quite mentally ill,    recovery comes that bit too quickly.


box office         to 31 August

rating three

3 Meece Rating

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