NOT YET DEAD CAT BUT…
All being well, theatrecat.com will be back late March. Twitter (I am lib_thinks) shall announce it. .
NOT YET DEAD CAT BUT…
All being well, theatrecat.com will be back late March. Twitter (I am lib_thinks) shall announce it. .
A HOLLOW CROWN IN MUD AND BLOOD
The clue is in the paper hat, worn by a dour-faced Simon Russell Beale on the programme cover. This is not stately, sacred, shockingly regicidal Shakespeareana. This is a brawl, a nasty coup against a hopeless king, a howl of rage at what fools, in power politics, these mortals be.
I was curious as to what the iconoclastic director Joe Hill-Gibbins would do with Shakespeare’s most lyrically beautiful history-play: his Edward II did not thrill, and the sex-dolls in Measure for Measure were yawny too. But he has done some cracking productions. And if you cast Simon Russell Beale at the centre, the greatest of contemporary actors, it will always be interesting. He was surprise casting: after Lear and Prospero, an odd and unusually older choice. The last two memorable Richard IIs have been in the wispier, more glamorously youthful genre to go with the lyricism and the monarch’s petulant self-pitying tendency to “sit on the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings”. David Tennant made him a rock star: a preening vanity, long tresses flowing down his silk-robed back, with all the epicene, arrogant eloquence of a Russell Brand. Eddie Redmayne’s still, sad dignity raised a tear of pitiful contempt, slender and hopeless from the start. But this is different. Flawed though he is, this King has a deep soul. And for all the bleak empty stage and the fire-buckets full of red paint, earth and water to be gradually tipped over our hero, the raucous setting does reveal something new about a play I have loved for decades.
Leo Bill is the usurper Bolingbroke throughout, an unusually weak and self-protective one, but the other six cast members male and female play all the nobles, courtiers and bishops and the two gardeners. Who are not humble in the background as usual, discussing apricots and the state of the country, but viciously taunting and soiling the failing King. The ensemble scuttle around ratlike, gang up in corners, fight amongst themselves and are encouraged by the director to gabble their lines at top speed so as to be almost insultingly incomprehensible. John of Gaunt’s earth-realm-England speech is given reasonable space; mostly, though, it is rattling, meaningless, gabbly politics. Just the kind we are used to. And that gives extra weight to central figure. Russell Beale’s intelligent perfection of mood and diction gives us an old lion at bay and accord full weight to the King’s tragedy of weakness, hubris, indecision and loss.
It’ll be too rufty-tufty and truncated a show for traditionalists, this, but I sort of liked it. Though I fear for Simon Russell Beale, who is too precious a national asset to be rudely caked with mud and paint and almost trodden on by scampering younglings eight times a week till Candlemas…
box office almeida.co.uk to 2 Feb
JAMAICA BREEZES UP WEST, WITH GRIEF AND GUSTO
Jamaican mourning tradition, longer than the Irish wake and noisier than the Jewish shiva, involves – we learn – nine nights of hospitality, music, dancing, food, relatives, friends, rackety settling of historic rows and possibly a bit of spirit-banishing by moving the furniture around. Perfect dramatic material, starting with a deathbed and lurching and weaving towards some kind of reckoning.
At the National Theatre Natasha Gordon’s debut play was an instant hit, (review from Michael – https://theatrecat.com/tag/nine-night/) . So on its west end transfer I was curious. And while it must indeed have been a zinger when the late Gloria’s family kitchen was set intimately in your face at the little Dorfman, there is as much zing in this big theatre up West, and a different buzz in joining a big audience of proper London diversity, everyone together oohing with shock (twice) and falling silent together, in moments when in a moment of common prayer your heart begins to lurch.
For here is all family life: grief, aggravation, cats unwisely let out of bags, tradition, identity, history, comedy. Cecilia Noble walks away with the comedy as Aunt Maggie, truculent and outspoken with old-Jamaica patois, keen to get home for EastEnders with her freedom pass (“Only good t’ing we get out of dis teevin’ government!”. Two generations on Rebekah Murrell is Anita, a young mother, Anglicized all the way but experimenting with extreme Rasta hairdos to “challenge distinctions of discrimination”. Her journey from embarrassed reluctance towards the “I get it!” moment some nights later is one of the understated engines of the play. Maggie’s Vince is a calmer presence, irritated no end by his second-cousin Robert, Anita’s uncle, who is edgily in business planning to be in the Rich List within years and clearly failing. Robert’s wife Sophie (Hattie Ladbury) is nervy and so far childless at 45 as a result of issues we only gradually grasp: she is the only white member, alienated by her marriage from her own racist family. But at the Jamaican home’s heart is Lorraine, Anita’s Mum (a marvellous, steady, emotionally deep performance from Natasha Gordon) . She gave up her job to nurse the matriarch Gloria. Who dies, in the first act, unseen upstairs but a powerful figure all through.
Another powerful unseen figure (until she roars into sight late on, laden with yams, rum, mangos and more rum) is Trudy the half-sister left behind in Jamaica . Every family has one problematic, or to some iconic, figure after all. Michelle Greenidge breezes in, such a force of nature that Aunt Maggie is almost eclipsed. Until she reveals that beneath her galloping-to-Jesus folksiness there may be a real psychic edge.
An honest and beautiful play, which by being so particular and rooted in one community becomes a conduit of universal emotional truths. Fabulous.
box office www.atgtickets.com to 6 Feb
rating: still five
PSYCHOPATHIC LIBERAL MEETS DINOSAUR PARENTS
Can we, I wonder, ever learn to deplore past attitudes without being vengeful about it? Hot on the heels of Mike Bartlett’s heartfelt SNOWFLAKE, here’s another three-hander , another estranged daughter and another go at the subject of intergenerational affront and cold, angry youthful righteousness. This, though, is a more mischievously satirical – and unsettling – imagination by Mark Ravenhill. We find Anna (Nicola Walker) a composed, professional young woman in her mid-thirties. She’s a single mother visiting her parents after a long gap: her mother is both depressedly defensive and seething with lifelong frustration (Maggie Steed gives a note-perfect performance, catching every resentment, fear and disappointment of a generation of women).
Father, a teacher on the verge of retirement after 45 years at the same school, is initially upstairs working on a rebuttal of a damning OFSTED. Parents and daughter have, we learn, become estranged because of her Academy chain, which hopes to take over the failing school and impose its frozen eyes-front silent righteousness on it. But, as also becomes clear, they never got on: Anna was an ‘angry child” who once threatened her father with an axe and ripped up the room. In the eerily bleak, high-ceiled set, the marks are still on the wallpaper, underlining a sense of parental stasis.
But the point is that children from Dad’s school are gathering outside, throwing bricks through the window in protest at the father (Alun Armstrong) who appears, fretting about his report and as weirdly ambiguous about his daughter as his wife is. It turns out that until the ban thirty years ago, father was deputy head and therefore responsible for caning naughty boys. There’s a ledger that proves it, complete with “parental permission” signatures and carefully recorded number of strokes (on the hand, by the way, not the backside, no skin broken). He never liked it, as becomes clear: Armstrong gives a wonderful picture of the old-style, basically caring Mr Chips trapped in a rigid system, doing his job. Now, though, having suddenly found out this bit of pretty obvious social history and discovered that the mild teacher they know was once a “child-beater”, the new generation are hunting him down in their hundreds and carrying on as if he was Josef Mengele.
The core of the conflict and its absurdity is nicely summed up when the mother says”They’re snowflakes. These children now can hunt out anybody’s grievance and claim it as their own. They can’t stand that the past wasn’t just the same as today. If something was done differently int he past they bawl and they whine, kick and spit and attack”.
To which the pious daughter replies”Young people today are much more aware of issues relating to coercion, personal space, violence”. She suggests formal apologies to the new generation (which hasn’t personally suffered) and a safe space for them to discuss feelings. “To indulge themselves further in their introspection and self-pity” replies Mum sharply.
Sympathy and irritation swing (well, mine did) between the hidebound, slightly bullying but long-serving older generation and the almost psychopathic liberalism of the bossy modern daughter, with her pious jargon about “pupil voice” and prating about Best Practice and the inadvisability of Off Site Meetings. Not to mention a grating tendency to say “utilize” not “use’, and a millennial assumption that whatever is in the attic must be pornography, because her father being male must want some. “I wouldn’t judge”. After an hour I did wonder what Mr Ravenhill and director Vicky Featherstone would do with the remaining 45 minutes , stuck in a bleak set with three bleak people. But the drama did rise – to the point of improbability – with more argument, a minor coup-de-theatre by Chloe Langford’s set, and an increasingly violent and improbable conclusion.
The last speech also revealed the fact that the liberal-caring-personal-space daughter probably always was as mad and vindictive as a box of fascist frogs. On the way out audience members over 50 muttered about how they got leathered at school ,so what? And a nice young man next to me almost fainted when I told him that in 1965 Mother Rita in Krugersdorp used to lash out with a ruler without any parental signature.
box office royalcourttheatre.com to 26 Jan
ONE MORE TIME, WITH FEELING
. After two other full cast renderings in a fortnight -David Edgar’s socially angry take at the RSC and Jack Thorne’s warm spectacular at the Old Vic – why go to another? Because it is, each year, unmissable, an 80 minute revelation of skill and feeling. The tale is the most protean and eternally vitalo: you can do it panto or earnest, screen or stage, Tommy Steele (dear God never again) or Alistair Sim, Muppet or musical, camp or holy. It does the trick, even when you’re half-hoping it won’t.
But the way Charles Dickens did it is simpler: alone on a stage, just telling the story in those vivid, close-woven sentences. Sometimes a dry aside, sometimes a Fezziwiggian exuberance, a torrent of adjectives; sometimes earnest, amusing as a nightcap or sorrowful as a gravestone.
Simon Callow does just that. I have seen this virtuoso, solo performance over the years four or five times, and lately the setting, at the Arts, has been well staged, with unsentimental simplicity: a moving gauzey screen, a few projections of old London, some chairs which Callow moves around as he becomes the grim Scrooge “edging along the crooked paths of life” eschewing fellowship. Then the cautiously alarmed or startled Scrooge, the repentantly delighted, redeemed one. He is Fezziwig, the Cratchits, the merrymakers at Fred’s, and all of us.
His script is conversational, feels contemporary, only a few smoothings-out of Victorian language needed. It carries you along. The moral of fellowship strikes home, of course, but in this age of irony so does the late line – gently simplified – in which Dickens reminds us that satire and cynicism always wither to inconsequence and are forgotten. The last word on Scrooge is the last word on every redemption: I have quoted it before:
“Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset. And knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him”
Has the performance, and Callow, changed over years? Probably, but not from ego or bravura, no cheap tricks, no knowing modernities:if anything the sincerity has deepened. The matinee audience was silent, agog, on edge, even the teenagers in the gallery. Many stood up to applaud. So we all damn well should.
To 12 jan. He does get Christmas Day off though. Good.
A GOTHIC EYEFUL
In this troublous nation, 2018 seems to be the Christmas of Aaargh! and Eughhh! and hahahahaaa! , as a gross-out gigglefest sweeps London theatre. There’s the McDonagh Veryveryvery at the Bridge, Burke and Hare hilariously murderous at the Jermyn, Patricia Highsmith brandishing a knife up West, and now this: Anthony Neilson’s knowingly gothic take on Edgar Allen Poe”s famous first-person narrative.
Remember? The lodger so fascinated and repelled by a kindly old landlord’s huge never-closing “eye of a vulture” that he kills him , chops him up under the floorboards but at last confesses, in hysterics, because he still hears the heart beating under the floor. It is, of course, his own heart: thudding guilt, a moral metaphor.
So here is the 2018 version: Tamara Lawrence as a smart young playwright who has just tuned down an award with a stirring speech about how art needs to be about flaws and failure, not success. There will be a backstory to explain her attitude tacked on at the end, rather pointlessly. Meanwhile, thogh, stuck on her second play she rents an attic in Brighton to write in, and is befriended by the gabby, needy, fey young landlady whose horribly deformed eye…yep, you guessed it!
Lawrence is splendid in the character, very much the boho sophisticate, sexually adventurous and keen on snorts of cocaine. She is patronisingly kind to Imogen Doel’s garrulously pally landlady, urging her to take off her plastic eye mask and be seen, loved, and accepted as her full self. All very PC. But when the huge comedy-swollen eye is revealed to her, looking like those Halloween joke ones on a spring, the writer shrinks and shrieks. And as she becomes ever more cowed and repelled, gales of laughter cross the audience.
Which rather gives a sense of he piss being taken. The professional theatre right now spends endless effort on telling audiences and critics never to comment unfavourably on anyone’s features, physicality , size, age, disability or visually unlikely casting. Yet here it is, in the heart of the Dorf, overtly demanding unkind merriment over a deformity. So while solemnly warning us of “strobe lighting, provocative language, some violent scenes, and moments and themes that some people may find distressing” , the NT offers not a word of caution to the facially abnormal. Who may, what do I know? be affronted at the idea that one look at their horrid features might provoke a sensitive artistic spirit to cut their throats with a pizza wheel.
But never mind. Let’s not be more po-faced than the theatre itself: we get a grand murder, plenty of gory chop-up nonsense, and there are wonderful special effects nightmare sequences abetted by Francis O”Connor’s lovely attic set. Lawrence moves brilliantly between horror and comedy, and we all enjoyed being swept by a blood red spotlight of doom at one point . There are some arty flashforward interludes when all the house lights come on and a detective – David Carlyle – joins in. As it is all part-dream part-reality, he is alternately proving menacingly sharp or idiotically obsessed with his musical- theatre ambitions (“If you need a singer in a play call me..you won’t , you people never do!”) He does very good bad-singing.
By the way, talking of what is demanded of Carlyle, note that in another plot strand Neilson – like McDonagh and a couple of other bright gross-out playwrights in recent years – demonstrates his belief that the physical mechanics of hanging are simply hilarious. So watch out if that upsets you. Overall, though, it’s a mildly amusing schlock-horror piece, performed with comic brilliance and – by way of figleaf -a coda of moral seriousness on the subject of remorse. Two hours and a bit, with interval.
box office nationaltheatre.org.uk to 8 Jan
ENERGY, ANGER, HOPE
It is 1842: young Charles Dickens, thirty years old and with five novels under his belt, is ranting. The Industrial Revolution is revving up nicely, but tens of thousands of the poorest are left behind and so are their children: slum brats without hope, infant drudges in factories and sweatshops where bodies and spirits are broken. Brandishing a report with fury, he tells his publisher Forster that his next work will be a polemic. Forster pleads with him, saying a story could have more force. As they move through a busy London scene the notion catches fire: a cold-faced man in a tall hat brushes aside an urchin, a heavy office door slams, a father carries his lame child on his shoulders… the majestic Dickens imagination slides down the slipway and the work is under way.
David Edgar’s adaptation, directed as last year by Rachel Kavanaugh, gives the old story of ghosts and redemption deft additions and expanded scenes; while the Old Vic’s very different production by Jack Thorne throws emphasis on Scrooge’s hardening in youth and painful redemption, Edgar directs the light more on social conditions, and the unforgivable shame of those who will not look at them. Both emphases work beautifully, both are appropriate.
Joseph Timms is a fiery impulsive Dickens, darting in and out of scenes with the quieter publisher alongside him: indeed the only time Forster really panics, publisher-style, is at the point when the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come shows Scrooge dead, his bedcurtains and linen sold off by some magnificently disgusting lowlife thieves (top cackling crone-work here from Claire Carrie, otherwise having to play various posher ladies and a severe Christmas Past). Forster, almost weeping with horror, says you can’ t end on a corpse, at Christmas! Dickens twinkles that it’s not over yet..
Aden Gillett is a sharp-nosed Scrooge but also an unusually thoughtful one, showing his change of mind more gradually than most interpreters; Gerard Carey a suitably worried family man as Cratchit. One of Edgar’s most impassioned additions is to the family scene, with not only the sickly Tiny Tim but explicit revelations of what is happening to all the other Cratchit children: a daughter losing her sight as a seamstres, on board-and-lodging only, another due to follow her, a boy who loves to learn taken from the ragged-school to industrial slavery – as Dickens, suddenly sorrowful, remembers being himself. Most startlingly of all, Emma Pallant as Cratchit’s wife turns on him, angry at his failure to prevent these fates. It is a slap of a moment, a reminder that marriages can crumble under extreme poverty.
There is, of course, merriment too: Clive Hayward’s Fezziwig wig is as festively fezzy as it should be, again in an expanded scene pointing up the old employer’s benevolence. There is some wild dancing, a fine Victorianesque score from Catherine Jayes and a heartbreakingly lovely carol led by Tiny Tim just after the shocking parental row. There’s even a sly Donald Trump joke in the party game at Fred’s, and I enjoyed the bluff Mancunian Ghost of Christmas Present (Danielle Henry) pinching candied-fruit from the table there. And comedy is attempted too in the one duff note of the script, where (improbably) the reformed Scrooge pretends to sack Cratchit, who rants against his meanness and lists old grudges. Somehow, that doesn’t ring true.
But what stays in the memory, demanding reflection on our new century, is that gallant Cratchit family scene, and the silent, accusing, ravaged faces of the children who are Want and Ignorance. Dickens, 175 years on, has done it again.
. Box office: 01789 403493. rsc.org.uk to 20 Jan