Monthly Archives: September 2018

FLOWERS FOR MRS HARRIS Chichester Festival Theatre

OUT OF AUSTERITY, A DREAM OF BEAUTY 

     

      A gulf yawns between this musical’s two halves:  a gulf of wealth,  sophistication, hope and colour.   Ida Harris, careworn heroine of Paul Gallico’s novella, is a widowed charwoman in 1950’s London.  A tired place and life: before a smoky panorama of Battersea Power Station and weary grey houses her life is of picking up in richer flats and houses,  stepping in sometimes to “oblige” for the clients of her neighbour Violet.   Doing this for Lady Dant , who awaits Princess Elizabeth to tea,  Ida undergoes a shock of  beauty. A Dior dress in Madam’s wardrobe:  the New Look, loveliest flowering of postwar extravagance and the age of Cecil Beaton (the most famous of his photographs will be beautifully recreated before us later on).   Ida sees the vision Dior called “a return to civilized happiness”, fullskirted and shimmering, desirable, perfect in execution. 

 

 

      We don’t see it. Not yet.   In Daniel Evans’ elegant, heartfelt production, fine-tuned since it ravished our hearts at Sheffield,  we only see the shabby figure of Clare Burt transfixed, kneeling  in a great warm light.  “It’s like somehow I just found a piece of me”.  The sense of that hunger for beauty and perfection is shudderingly powerful.  A widow of Passchendaele, three decades a drudge who consoles herself secretly by talking to her dead husband, she yearns towards the absurd, the impossible ideal.   That new longing even briefly  fractures her friendship with Violet, who cannot understand.   Ida saves and scrimps and struggles month after month,  suffers hungry self-deprivation and hoards a tiny Pools win,  all in the naive belief that she can buy one off the peg in Paris.  Where she goes for the glorious second half. 

         

 

     Rachel Wagstaff’s book deftly amplifies the novella, wisely removing Gallico’s rather embarrassing patronage of Ida’s “twinkly” Cockney ways,  and gives a stronger sense that she is not only starved of beauty but stoically frozen  in her old grief.   Richard Taylor’s music and lyrics are intense and skilful and (in the cleaning sequences, with a witty use of the revolve) they are playful;  but it’s a bit hard going at first.  Light female voices compete too weakly with a ten-piece band below,  in a bit too much operatic sung-through dialogue.    But psychologically, perhaps we need to be a bit impatient.  Because Paris is to come.

 

        There, with nice crossovers, the London cast become Parisians. Lady Dant (Joanna Riding) is haughty Madame Colbert at Dior, who softens towards Ida; Laura Pitt-Pulford’s selfish Pamela plays Natasha, the feted mannequin who dreams of ordinariness,  and London’s gauche lovesick accountant on Ida’s cleaning round  is an  equally awkward accountant at Dior.  She solves all their problems.    Mark Meadows, her lost husband’s imagined ghost,  becomes a silver-fox of a Marquis who also takes to her.

 

 

       They all do.  Shabbiness and simplicity are no impediment to almost instant connection.    That is the  fairytale, the hope.  Seeing it in Sheffield, I observed that one line was an echo from the idealistic founding days of the Arts Council:     “If something is beautiful, it’s beautiful for anyone, no matter who you are”  .  But alongside the idea of a humble woman drawn out of her world by beauty runs an even more powerful dream: that a joyful response  (Burt is luminous, astonishing) will draw grateful, comradely  recognition from the makers and guardians of high art.   It should.  It doesn’t always.   

 

        The parade of dresses is spectacular, and had us all gasping and yearning  (Lez Brotherston’s designs breathtakingly re-create  Dior and the nine models are perfect in gesture , period and impossible tiny waists).  But more arresting and touching is the intensity of the dressmakers,   measuring and reeling and ruffling and  hissing in professional perfectionism,  offering to “sew all night” so that Ida can take her treasure away.   Haltingly, the senior seamstress explains that they have seen too many bored and jaded faces at the collections (think of all those Anna Wintour types, in shades..).  The workroom experts, artists, craftswomen,  are simply grateful for the innocent light in Ida’s eyes.  That’s when the tear rises in yours.  

 

box office  cft.org.uk   to  29 Sept

rating four   4 Meece Rating   

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HEATHERS Theatre Royal, Haymarket

DARK LARKS AND HIGH SCHOOL HOMICIDE

 

You thought there were enough school-themed musicals?  What with  Bring it On,  School of Rock and our own dear cross-dressing Jamie…?  Make room, here comes Heathers.   It was that cultish movie with the three bullying Queen-Bee girls, all called Heather,  and Veronica who tries to join but falls in with a cool yet psychopathic geek boyfriend.   Now it’s a musical,  with the murders starting briskly at about forty caterwauling, leaping dancing minutes into Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keeffe’s  creation…

 

Imagine Grease,  rewritten by a Joe Orton fan high on Diet Coke and back-bedroom Satanism, yearning for knee socks on sturdy female legs and suffering from a needy urge to outrage public taste.  When the film came out, set in Reagan’s 1989 world when The Simpsons was considered edgy and anarchic, it became a cult. It still is, if the number of bobbysox outfits and Westerberg High sweatshirts in the stalls is anything to go by (I  do not judge the whooping dress-up fans, not after myself  turning up at Bat out of Hell in a Bat out of Hell T shirt).  The point is that those who love the film will probably love the musical. Or fill the seats, anyway. 

 

    It was an  off-Broadway hit and then delighted Lloyd Webber’s The Other Palace on a smaller scale without inviting press. How well it does in this high-profile exposure we shall see.  It will be a useful barometer of public taste, since its USP is extreme tastelessness and its musical default mode an amplified belting of really very same-y tunes.  Carrie Hope Fletcher is Veronica, feverishly supported by a likeable ensemble and a nicely pallid Jamie Muscato as JD the bookish boyfriend turned killer thanks to having a Dad in the demolition business and “freezing his brain” with ice-pops.  And there is a hilarious rendering of the chief bitch-Heather:  Jodie Steele pretty much hijacks the show, composedly vicious in life and barmily so in ghosthood. 

 

 

For she indeed gets killed early on, a fake suicide note forged with artful reference to her reading of The Bell Jar.  Before long two maraudingly rapey jocks share her fate,  another fake note suggesting they were gay suicides.   This enables the school leaders, mercilessly guyed, to hold excruciating therapeutic pep rallies for suicide prevention.  There is something irresistible, horribly so, about the big number where staff and pupils sentimentally hymn the human merits of the girl who had none to speak of, and clasp her ghost to their bosom.  As for the boys,  the gay-acceptance assembly is even heavier with irony,  given that they weren’t:  one  has to giggle at the Dad suddenly seeing the liberal light with  “I never cared for homos much until I reared me one”. 

 

Indeed the lyrics are the real pleasure of this show:  you can even nod profoundly at Veronica’s sudden remorseful “we’re damaged, really damaged, but that doesn’t make us wise”.   A few confessional columnists might take that to heart.   

But that – and the conclusion – are cheating moments in a story which someone described as  “The nastiest cruellest fun you can have without studying law or or girding on leather”.  And as long as you stay on that wavelength it is fun. But it walks a tightrope:  the moment the wild dancing and the snappy lyrics ease off or get inaudible you may wince.   How tolerant is London, a few days after suicide prevention day , with youthful mental welfare an anxiety and  school massacres reported in the US every month? Are we sufficiently, callously tired enough of being preached at on the subject to welcome a blast of black and rackety cynicism?

    I dunno.  Maybe.  I did laugh a lot, until it palled.

www.heathersthemusical.com   to 24 November

rating three   3 Meece Rating

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ONCE New Wolsey, Ipswich

A RARE OLD TIME IN DUBLIN , IN IPSWICH

 

 

The miniature of Libby Watson’s gorgeous Dublin pub set in the foyer raises your spirits straight away.  Sometimes only an Irish pub will do:  a dream of a pub, rarer now in reality, where  everyone can grab an instrument and joke and blend and drum and pluck and fiddle and defy the hard world outside.  And while as we take our seats it’s Behan’s Ould Triangle and the rest to busk us in,  once the show begins it’s Glen Hansard’s marvellous Falling Slowly:  the song that won the film an  Oscar.  And there you are:  up  walking on the moonbeams with Glen Hansard’s lovely songs.

 

 

      Like thousands during the London run of the Broadway production,   I fell joyfully for Enda Walsh’s glorious opening-out of the quirky film about a despairing Dublin street musician whose spirits and hopes are transformed by a young Czech woman in the street.  Hansard and Markéta Irglova wrote the beguiling, memorable bittersweet songs together and devised the simple pavement story;   they starred in the film, but it’s made to be a stage musical with roaming, versatile actor-musicians.    And Walsh’s book mines all its hope and humour, and adds more.  And, notably, it rounds  out the character of the girl whose forthright hopefulness changes more than one life. 

 

    And goodness,  director Peter Rowe strikes lucky in his heroine.    Emma Lucia is barely a year graduated from Mountview, and almost startlingly perfect in the part of the Czech girl.  Which requires her to play both Mendelssohn and the Hansard music, sing beautifully  and remain convincingly Czech throughout in accent and manner.  Not to mention magnetizing  us with a modest but firm stage presence so that we believe the galvanizing difference she makes to the (equally well-cast) ragbag of Dublin pub regulars and struggling new Czech immigrants.

 

  They’re glorious too, notably Sean Kingsley majestically explosive as the leather-jerkined rocker Billy, Kate Robson-Stuart as the exuberantly tarty Reza who dances a tango duet with him,  and Samuel Martin as the buttoned-up gay bank manager who writes a truly terrible song about Bandon.   And leading the pack there’s Daniel Healy  as the ‘broken-hearted fixer-sucker guy” who mends Hoovers and is on the point of dumping his guitar on the pavement and giving up music forever. 

 

      This joint Wolsey and Hornchurch production, the regional premiere long overdue for this lovely show,   raises the heart and hits the spot.  I wish it was touring everywhere, because to see such quality at out-of-London prices is almost a human right.  And in this time of unease (I am not typing the B-word) what better than to enjoy the gorgeous joke of the way that the melancholy and doubt  of us offshore islanders gets startled, then invigorated, by that slightly terrifying East European directness of address,   and  that ruthlessly cheerful pragmatism.   “Serious? I am always serious. I am Czech”.   When the drooping busker asks the girl where she gets her energy, it’s “I am a young mother.”.  Her own mother – Susannah van den Berg – surrounded by keen compatriots learning English off soap-operas – is another powerhouse of exotic energy.   

 

    The staging is smooth and nimble, the movement and breaks into dance adeptly homelike:  despite the star quality of the two leads it feels the most ensemble of pieces, especially in the magical moments when an intimate number begins,  thickens as the band moves forward to wrap around the moment’s emotion,  then retreat until we are back in the shabby flat or pavement .  The redemptive, hopeful theme carries the slight strong story onwards,  all the stronger for denying us the formulaic rom-com ending;    but on another level the whole show is a chain of moments,  of treats:  musical, comic or touching.  Perfect. 

 

www.wolseytheatre.co.uk  this week – then to Queens, Hornchurch.

rating five  5 Meece Rating

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THE LOVELY BONES Royal, Northampton

HUMANITY RISING FROM HORROR

 

     It is one of the oldest notions in the world: the unquiet grave.   From Sophocles to modern campaigns we are haunted by the idea that the violently dead cannot  rest until the living either avenge them or find – perhaps carve –  some deeper reconciliation.   Alice Sebold’s remarkable novel caught that timeless strangeness:    the restless electricity of superstition that surrounds shock and sudden loss, and weaved it  into a portrait of an ordinary family’s grief.   Susie, the narrator,   is a 14 year old walking home from school across a cornfield.    Polite and trusting (it is set in 1973, more innocent times)  she lets Mr Harvey the lonely neighbour show her a “clubhouse” underground he has built “for the local kids”.  He gags her with her jingling woolly hat,  rapes and kills her, hides her body, keeps a souvenir charm bracelet.    From an inchoate limbo on the way to heaven Susie watches the investigation,  impatient and frustrated, commenting and  hoping; she  wanders a ghost through her shattered family and sees her little brother growing up, her sister’s first love,  her parents’ dislocation.

      

    Bryony Lavery – no stranger to dangerous topics after her unsettlingly brilliant  FROZEN (https://theatrecat.com/2018/03/02/frozen-theatre-royal-haymarket/)  adapts Sebold’s novel for this first stage version, directed by Melly Still.     The topic makes you shudder,  and the opening moments certainly do despite their discretion: the ultimate nightmare is not treated pruriently, but not softened.   Yet what emerges is a powerful, hopeful  triumph of human love.  A theatrical triumph too,  not least thanks to a remarkable set by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita:   a shimmering cornfield horizon bisects a world below and its reflection far overhead.  Sometimes it is a true reflection,  sometimes showing something else.   Sometimes Susie is brightly lit, the others dim; sometimes all seem to be together, in flashback or apparitions.   

        

     

        Charlotte Beaumont is a revelation as Susie. Looks easily 14, smaller than the others and briskly childlike in her bright yellow trousers,   she roams around her strange reflected ghost-world among adults and siblings who can’t see  or hear her – but sometimes eerily sense her .    As children do  she mainly  takes the strangeness of her new lot pragmatically,   and afizz with young energy moves between brisk teen impatience, astonishment,  dismay , tenderness, laughter and frustration .  She wills Harvey to “make a mistake!” ,  irritated at the detective’s failure to pick up clues in the field, in his house, in his beige-anoraked, bespectacled persona as a tolerated local weirdo (Keith Dunphy) catches that creepy plausibility horribly well).   “He’s got most of me IN HIS BASEMENT!”  shouts Susie, as he bustles carefully around.  

          

          Altogether she is quite wonderful: more than one of us came out asking “Who’s that kid?”.     As her parents,  Emily Bevan and Jack Sandle are all too credible as their marriage threatens to crumble.  Families in tragedy sometimes do.  He becomes obsessed with nailing the suspect Heckler,   and she needs to move on, feed her other children, grieve and seek solace.  

     Sebold does not indulge in any safe-in-the-arms-of-Jesus sentimentality:   Susie does feel – reflecting every bereaved parent’s cry – the unfairness of young death.   “I want to grow up!”  She  calls on David Bowie music for comfort.  Seeing her younger sister – now older than she was – have a tender initiation to lovemaking  the violated, chopped-up victim says sadly  “My sister sails away from me…”.  Her own school boyfriend is with her friend Ruth now, growing up, they talk of her but move on.   A strange ghost moment reconciles her.    Her own companions in the limbo now are Bhawna Bawsar’s Fran, a social worker in life who has chosen helping newcomers as her own heaven, and eventually  a heartbreaking host of puppet-dresses, the other little girls Heckler killed.    

     

       There is a point just after midway in its tight 110 minutes when you find yourself impatient,  feeling too entangled in the problems of the living.  You want the simple Agatha-Christie relief of seeing the net closing around the killer. But like Susie, like all of them,  you need  to admit that no, just zapping the bastard is not enough.  For human resolution vengeance may  not even be entirely necessary.   The “lovely bones” which at last satisfy and give  a heaven to Susie are those that grow around the people close to her: a new scaffolding of love.   

 

Her heaven is to see the world go on, without her yet with herself still woven into others’ identities and affections.  And to turn in the last moment to the audience ,  grin,  and wish well to the living.     In what should be a long and successful career,  young Charlotte Beaumont will rarely get a line that jerks so many tears.  

box office  royalandderngate.co.uk   to 22 Sept  and touring, to 17 nov, see below

RATING   five   5 Meece Rating

   (co-production: Royal & Derngate, Northern Stage and Birmingham Rep,  in association with Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse

 Everyman Liverpool 25 September to Sat 6 October  www.everymanplayhouse.com

Northern Stage  9 – 20 Oct    www.northernstage.co.uk

Birmingham Rep 30 oct-10 Nov    www.birmingham-rep.co.uk

New Wolsey  Ipswich 13-17 Nov    www.wolseytheatre.co.uk

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THE HUMANS Hampstead Theatre

 GUEST CRITIC MICHAEL ADAIR IS TRANSPORTED TO NEW YORK, AND FAMILY TRUTH

 

 

The joy of a play like The Humans is that it can take a subject that feels as if it might have been done to death – a family gathering together for their Thanksgiving dinner –  and cause us to forget that it has ever been done before. There is a moment where Arian Moayed’s character, Richard, awkwardly tells his girlfriend’s visiting family about one of his favourite comic books, where aliens share ghost stories about the human race because they consider us to be so frightening. Humans, Richard suggests, are as likely objects of fear and fascination to the monsters as those monsters might be to us. Watching my fellow humans in this superlative performance, I can see his point… 

 

It is making its much-anticipated UK debut, with writer Stephen Karam and director Joe Mantello packing up their Broadway Cast, four Tony Awards and David Zinn’s glorious set to come to London.    The set, recipient of one of those Tonys, is terrific, a rusty, run-down duplex in New York city’s Chinatown, two floors of peeling paint and creaking floorboards with ancient insulation stuffed between. Noisy neighbours thump around upstairs and there is ceaseless whirr and hum of washing machines next door. This transfer has clearly been a labour of love – even the smallest minutiae ensuring that we are absolutely ensconced in modern-day New York with the Blake family for their Thanksgiving. Gifts emerge from plastic bags from Bed, Bath and Beyond, the Coca Cola bottle being poured at the table is the slightly stumpier American shape, so has clearly been imported…there is no suspension of disbelief, everything feels plausible, actual, real. 

 

The play introduces us to the Blakes: Brigid Blake (Sarah Steele) has just moved into the run-down apartment with her boyfriend, Richard. The two are struggling to make ends meet, Richard is a mature student, Brigid is waitressing whilst trying to find work as a composer. Visiting the apartment for the first time are older sister and lawyer, Aimee (Cassie Beck), mother Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), father Erik (House of Cards’ Reed Birney) and his dementia-stricken and wheelchair bound mother, Fiona ‘Momo’ Blake (Lauren Klein). The six characters share a meal – on paper plates, with plastic cutlery – their fold-out chairs squeaking uncomfortably beneath them. All have stories to share: money problems, sickness, revelations that build and break throughout the 90 minutes. Everyone, that is, except Klein’s ‘Momo’ – whose son insists had a ‘good day yesterday’ but whose condition has clearly deteriorated/   We are left with the family to unite in sharing tales of a proud Irish matriarch, who loved a drink and who was once the life and soul of these gatherings. We, the audience, are confronted on stage with only a shell of a person, frail, confused and mumbling unintelligibly.

 

 

 The dialogue is impeccable and authentic, switching constantly and abruptly between hilarity, stubbornness, furious indignation, and complete exasperation in a way that only a family meal can accomplish. All can be forgiven, yet nothing can be forgotten. Multiple conversations take place across both rooms simultaneously and the cast deliver it superbly. There are polite disagreements over the pronunciation of ‘Carnegie’ – settled only by Aimee declaring ‘Everybody’s right, guys!’, and the traditional, tense generational impasse, with Birney’s patriarch at a loss to understand why his daughter is so anxious about money, yet insists on living in an expensive New York apartment .  He smugly asks of her superfood diet, ‘If you’re so depressed, why are you trying to live longer?!’. Over the course of the evening Brigid becomes ever more exasperated with her parents: snapping, interrupting and shutting down even the mildest of statements. The two floors of the cramped apartment work beautifully, everything is seen, everything is overheard – it feels like a real family coming together to make do and endure one another.

 

Karam’s mastery is in making it all so authentic. The play takes place in real time, there are no scene changes – dinner is prepared, served and eaten in the company of the audience and Karam perfectly delivers the clenched jaw and aching temples so easily brought about by a tense family reunion. When the revelations arrive, they hit hard; the Blakes are fondly reminiscing about a past that may never have existed , and reluctantly adapting in the face of merciless change. 

 Believe the hype. The Humans is exceptional. 

https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com    to 13 October

Box Office: 020 7722 9301

rating five  5 Meece Rating

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THE HABIT OF ART Theatre Royal, York & touring

ONE OF BENNETT’S FINEST , ON THE ROAD AGAIN

  

   Onstage is a shabby rehearsal room,  an Oxford study scruffily indicated with doorframes and signs; at the side a litter of coffee-cups and props.  Neil,  a nervy and easily offended playwright,  sits in while the Company Stage Manager Kay supervises a rehearsal of his new work:   in which WH Auden is fictionally visited in 1972 by Benjamin Britten,  while the young Radio Oxford reporter Humphrey Carpenter is mistaken for the rent-boy Auden booked.    The actors are costive and restless,  the director  has cut lines the author cherished.  They are all in the mind of Alan Bennett:  so here we have  an artist,  writing about an artist writing about artists,  while manoeuvring round the irritabilities of the performing artists who are his tools.   It is about human friction, sexuality, old age and fractured friendship and the impertinence of biography.  And above all,  about the need to go on making: the habit of art.  “Are you still writing?” asks Carpetnter.  “Am I dead?” replies Auden, surprised…

 

 

   It is nine years since Nicholas Hytner’s National Theatre opened Bennett’s fascinating play: high time we had it back, and this York-led collaboration does it proud.  There are lines I had forgotten and others (memory suggests) which must have been cut by Hytner and are reinstated here in Philip Franks’ production.    Importantly,  at its heart  the two great men – fictionally meeting in Oxford in 1972, both not far from their deaths – are superbly rendered by  Matthew Kelly as the veteran “Fitz” who becomes Auden ,   and David Yelland as the more restrained Henry who is being  Britten.   Kelly’s Auden is  rubicund and scruffy, sexually and reputationally reckless but a great and open heart, pining for his ever-unfaithful partner Chester.    Yelland gives Britten all his precise, tweedy nervousness and buttoned-down, closeted  yearning for boyish beauty and innocence.   In the second act, as he agonizes over how embarrassingly close-to-home is that theme in his opera Death  In Venice,    Auden challenges him to admit and even celebrate  those adorations.   “Why are you still sending out messages in code?”. 

 

       If that makes anyone uncomfortable in the age of heightened awareness of paedophilia,   it is meant to.   Impossible and forbidden loves are part of many lives,   and of literature down the ages.   And as Britten says,  he plays with his adored boy sopranos only in a musical sense .   “I don’t prey on them..I attend to them.  I listen”.    The discomfort, unhappiness, confusion is all there.   Auden longs to take over writing the libretto for Britten, serving the music which will express all these yearning impossibilities.   Britten is wary,   closeted,  but also lonely for the sensible adult love of Peter Pears who is in Canada.  

 

           In some ways you sense Bennett – long silent about his own loves, but around this time having become  more open, partnered and happy – debating with himself which kind of gay man to be.    But that is small compared to the greater theme of creativity and its parasites:   the itch to work and make new things , the habit of art, the ruthless following of dangerous tracks and the danger of become a national treasure.  Auden is funny about being considered an “oracle” and endlessly repeating himself, rather like Larkin who complained about “pretending to be me”.  And he jeeringly asks Britten about his adoring Aldeburgh  – “do they call you Maestro?”.    

     It’s sharp, and often funny, teasing and important.    And from Bennett – who has written enough diaries  to be a biographer of his own life better than any other will ever be –  there’s a nice swipe at how biographers  simply “hitch a lift” on others’ achievement and rather look forward to the subject’s death because that will tie it all up nicely.    The play holds up, even better, ten years on.

 

        Just a note on the Humphrey Carpenter character:  we were colleagues years ago, indeed around th time the play is set.  It is Bennett’s fictional dramatist (Robert Mountford nicely fretful as Neil) and  not Bennett himself who traduces him:   Humf was a lot sharper, funnier and less of a blundering clown than in the play .   But  in one of those often unwise actor-interviews in the programme,  Matthew Kelly traduces him further by gaily saying that Carpenter was a “great musician” but  with shocking inaccuracy  “knows b+++ all about literature” ,  and that his Auden book looked boring  “500 pages of “tiniest print” so he didn’t  bother to read it.  O, why do  good actors do these dangerous chats?  Why do programmes print them?   But it’s a fine production.  

Box office: 01904 623568  to 8 Sept then yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

Then touring:  www.originaltheatre.com   to 1 Dec

rating four    4 Meece Rating

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DANCE NATION Almeida, N1

GRAND PLIE, FIRST POSITION,  TURN…TWERK…

 

     My friend and comrade-in-the stalls Mr Letts of the Mail has suggested ( by means of Twitter ,review on Friday, always worth a read) that he was less than pleased by a group of grown women pretending to be children  and shouting a chorus about their pussies in a subsidized theatre.  Which is fair comment,  though wilfully unsympathetic toward Clare Barron’s spirited play about a children’s dance troupe in a fierce American competition,   directed by Bijan Sheibani ,  choreographed by Aline David and very fetchingly designed and lit by Samal Blak and Lee Curran.  

 

       Maybe it helps to have been a pubescent teenage girl.  And to come fresh from the more literal but equally endearing Lin-Manuel Miranda BRING IT ON at the Southwark.    As for the shouting about pussies,  fair enough.  My generation felt the term rather too coyly Mrs-Slocombe for our taste, and  it is only lately that feminists and the US President severally grabbed it back for common use.   But let the ladies shout it:   after all we ladies have put up with  years and years of literary and theatrical blokes going on and on  – and on and on  again –  about their dicks.  From Portnoy’s Complaint to  Alan Bennett’s WH Auden demanding to “suck off” a rent boy at the National  (and, review tomorrow, now in York)  the line of literary willies stretches out to the crack of doom.  Dicks have delighted us long enough.  Indeed at one point I declared a critical fatwa on any show about Young Men Discovering Their Sexuality.  

 

          But the aspect potentially most jarring here  – adults playing near-pubescent children – is actually no problem:  once you pass fifty  these days it is quite hard to distinguish between tallish 12-year-olds and young adult women, what with the  flicky hair, scrunchies, ballet flats and trackie-bottoms.   My own daughter at fourteen went to the Old Bailey on an education visit and got asked by an elderly clerk where she was doing her pupillage.   So Sarah Hadland, Nancy Crane, Karla Crome, Ria Zmitrowitz, Kayla Meikle,  and Manjinder Virk are perfectly convincing, in and out of the dance routines and dressing-room banter.  

  

 

     It’s the banter that makes it.  The competitive dance team – overseen by a rather thuggish Brendan Cowell as the teacher, and mystifyingly including one boy, Irfan Shamji less convincing owing to the whiskers  – provides a frame and metaphor for the turbulence of everyone’s female puberty.   You’re learning your dismaying, changing body, comparing yourself with friends and rivals,  fantasising about a future,   half-proud and half-ashamed of the glances in the street.   There are monologues,  notably a tremendous rant from Meikle about her hidden powers which include a good ass and  being good at Math,  and a nocturnal fantasy from Zmitrowitz – the most troubled of them – about how she will lose her virginity to a handsome Canadian fiancé at age 23, having just bought together a New York apartment “with hardwood floors”.   Ah, the impossible dreams of childhood… 

 

 

        Sarah Hadland is both funny and intensely touching as cheerful Sofia who is assaulted by a first period on competition day:  in a memorable triple tableau that night she rinses her pants and wards off a sympathetic Mum, while on the two sides of the stage one girl lays out her model horse collection and the other vainly attempts masturbation.   Tampons and toys, wanking and weeping,  ignorance and speculation and secret societies.  That’s puberty.  And above all, and movingly often in chorus, there’s  a hope that you might make the world  OK  by dancing through it.  

 

 

       It’s an odd, short evening (105 minutes)  but likeable.  And  dickless. Though one memorable line, never explained,  is when a girl blurts out “I saw a penis, once”.   It is never explained how.  Best not to know.

box office  almeida.co.uk     to 6 oct

rating three  3 Meece Rating

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