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. .
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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
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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
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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
CHRISTMAS, BREXIT, GRIEF, HOPE
A few hours after Theresa May postponed the parliamentary vote and spun us down into another layer of Brexi-hell , the little OFS – a theatre shared with Crisis homeless centre – gave us this premiere by Mike Bartlett. Which, while not a Brexit play, at a moment in its core nicely defines the attitudinal rift – and the psychological gulfs it revealed. “A whole landscape of possibility has disappeared” mourns a young remainer, while an older Brexiteer protests “we’re already a union, we don’t need to be tethered to another less democratic and more malfunctioning one”.
That this argument- now mired in technicalities about customs duties – has aggravated a generational, psychological clash as well as a political one is something drama should have been thinking about for two years, and rarely has. It is reminiscent, if you’re my age, of how angry we were about Vietnam and how tricky things got with our fathers. But for today it has taken Bartlett to demonstrate, at one point in this short play directed by Clare Lizzimore, how referendum difficulties can explode on one side into harrumphing exasperation at the cruel arrogant certainties of youth, and on the other side into scornful excoriation of everything pre-millennial. Which does mean everything, from bootcut jeans and the X files to Blair, Savile and Morrissey – “everything you grew up with – most of it very offensive, and now, quite rightly, burnt to the ground” .
It’s not all about Brexit by a long chalk, though, and I am reluctant to reveal to you even who is speaking at that point. Because this neat and moving play, at some points piquantly redolent of Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, has a surprise at the end of the 35-minute first half , and a double reveal in the second. Which works very well indeed dramatically , so I am not about to spoil it for you. Others will. Watch out.
So just the bare bones: it is set on Christmas Eve. Elliot Levey plays Andy, a widower whose daughter Maya disappeared two years ago and hasn’t been in touch; but she has been seen locally again. So he has hit on the eccentric idea of getting a rundown parish hall , decorating it with a tree and a sweet Christmas scene as in her childhood, hoping that she will meet him there. The first half , until the last moment, is a monologue in which, endearingly but with middle-aged diversions into bewilderment at the modern age, the father imagines seeing her again. It is probably too long a monologue, the play’s one flaw, though Levey handles it well. When the door opens it is not his daughter but a gobby, lairy, overfriendly, rather impertinent stranger who starts bubble-wrapping plates from the kitchen, not respecting his previous booking rights. The invasion is a nice portrait of blithe tactless youthful entitlement, setting the theme.
Which it does, brilliantly: the chilly resentful purity of youthful idealism, and a policing of language before feeling, is set against warm, baffled, battered and bereaved parental susceptibility. Bartlett’s dialogue is terrific, often funny, occasionally heartbreaking. Let us just say that by the end it is a three-hander, that Levey holds the balance between absurdity and deep feeling, and that Racheal Ofori is a rising name to watch with glee. Ellen Robertson completes the trio with grace and credibility, the reveal is well worth it, and the simple set by Jeremy Herbert offers a surprise and a lump to the throat.
And the ending? Well, it’s Christmas. Not easy, not pat, but yes, redemptive.
box office oldfirestation.org.uk to 22 Dec. Worth hurrying to. You’ll not regret it.
I WENT TO THE PANTO. O YES I DID.
The great thing about the proud tradition of Oxford Playhouse panto is that while cannily aware of the audience’s likely cultural uplift, it has no fear of getting down and dirty with the rackety, popular and downright silly, and a firm grip on local in-jokes. So we get puns on foccaccia and cannelloni, and once the Dame is in her giant-fish-scale frock for the pirate scene she rattles off a list of her RSC ambitions: Anchovy and Cleopatra, The Comedy of Herrings, Salmon of Athens, etc. We also get borrowings off Oliver and Les Mis , a bit of Wim-owei and Daaay O, a random rackety mass of disco and a Spice Girls tribute.
As for the Cat, he is a proper urban moggy, cool as Stormzy: Alessandro Babalola breakdancing, cartwheeling, rapping and hip-hopping and patronizing the somewhat simple farmer’s lad Dick from Oxfordshirecester as he unwisely heads up the M40 to streets paved with problems. There’s a cheer for female emancipation (it’s Alice Fitzwarren who becomes Mayor before Dick), a election poster on a red bus, and a nicely embittered prediction of Oxford being swallowed by London (“Welcome to Zone 17”). It is also vital in this city to be half-partisan and half-mocking about the Welsh, so I did appreciate the “Why don’t penguins live in Britain? Cos they’re scared of Wales”.
But never mind the cultural-topical- political highs and lows, references which no proper panto since Grimaldi’s day has shirked. This was a packed schools matinee and from the deafening pre-curtain disco bouncing and wild cheers between balcony and stalls, the tots were more than up for it. And the cast reached out – across all baffling references and semi-audible patter lyrics – and gave them one hell of a good afternoon. The old story is followed admirably, pirates and all, and so are the sacred conventions of Behind-you, O No It Isn’t, Cream-pie-in-the-face and a nicely spectacular UV-light underwater scene enabling a quick chorus of “Baby Shark”. Which even I know is a Thing.
The evil rats are great, Max Olesker enjoying badness after being Prince Charming last year; Fitzwarren is a nicely bumbling Tim Treloar, and Paul Barnhill Sarah the cook. Importantly, they are all fabulous roaring voices, Barnhill in his spotty-gingham-ruffly OTT cook kit and spangly boat-shaped dress is full-on operatic. No reedy tenors here. Indeed the very authority of their big voices helps to rally, energize and dominate the roiling sea of small children as they stir them up. Anthony Lamble’s set has just enough of the colouring-book about it, Amanda Hambleton’s costumes lash out on lamé and preposterousness, and Steve Marmion , its writer-director, keeps it hammering along. All, in short, is as it should be. O Yes it Is.
www.oxfordplayhouse.com to 6 Jan
A WONDERLAND WINNER
“Posh panto”, for wincing parents fleeing the rackety showbiz ’n smut of the season, can be a bit chilly – neither one thing nor the other. But Christmas shows can power through both snobbery and the inverted kind, and be a complete delight for all.
I do mean all: Joanna Carrick’s adaptation, a spirited three-hander, is astonishingly faithful to Lewis Carroll’s text and, importantly, spirit; the crankiest Oxford literary historian could find nothing to miss (despite an artful reference to Bake-Off and the fact that Humpty Dumpty, with his finicky use of words and economic illiteracy, just happens to have a Boris Johnson hairdo). It is very Carroll, including a marvellously elegant Victorian nursery set and brilliantly designed costumes by Katy Frost, beautifully echoing Tenniel’s illustrations. Yet a row of tiny pre-schoolers sat entranced for two 40-minute halves, one keenly volunteering as Dormouse and submitting to a ventriloquist’s fake-mouth mask.
Leonie Spilsbury has the right look for Alice and such a smilingly witty gift with the smaller ones that one checks her programme CV and finds that indeed she is no stranger to Children’s Theatre (in amid Brecht and Ibsen, it’s a varied life). In her Alice frock she strides and twinkles around, playing the guitar sometimes, confronted by – or collaborating with – Darren Latham and Lawrence Russell as the series of Carroll creatures. Father William, Tweedledum and Dee, Rabbit, a gloriously languid French caterpillar, a stiffly mad Red Queen though not madder than the gorgeous Hatter, a properly barmy Duchess, an Aussie lizard and Dormouse, the good old wallpaper-roll gag, and a Cheshire cat who invaded the audience and lay across the laps of patrons, purring violently. And despite Alice’s “this is not panto”, there is a behind-you and a perilous flinging of jam tarts. Everything for the inner child, and perfect for the outer ones.
www.redrosechain.com to 26th A FEW TICKETS LEFT!!
, GEESE CACKLE, LIFE GOES ON
I have a friend of Russian heritage who boycotts any Chekhov production which lacks scabby birch-trees, a samovar and some parasols. She’ll do fine here, though the windy autumnal setting precludes parasol-work: Tim Shortall’s setting, indoor and out, is mournfully resonant of its 1890s, pre-Revolutionary rural world. It is , on the surface, the gloomiest of Uncle Anton’s works: country drudgery stirred up by a visit, enervated family relationships , unspoken resentments, lost loves and lives wasted, the city popinjays carelessly unfeeling and the decent people stuck quivering like flies in circumstance’s web.
Yet its very accuracy prevents it from depressing the viewer: some moods, looked at levelly and with a suspicion of mockery, have the power to assert something rather beautiful in humanity. One of the fascinating things about Chekhov’s studies in frustration, disappointment and ennui is how unfrustrating they actually are. This one has to revolve around Vanya, and Alan Cox is suitably winning in Vanya’s dismayed, demoralised self-aware failure to count in life, and his hopeless mooning admiration of the lovely Yelena ,who has married his awful old brother-in-law the Professor.
Cox brings he part a rare vigour and loveability just, as it were, below the surface of the grumpy hopelessness. He gives us all of it: explosive fury at the Professor after his 25 faithful years of unthanked work on the family estate “buried alive with my own mother” , a moment when he crumbles in painful shame, and the last scene as he weeps alongside his niece Sonia for their two broken futures. All the cast are very fine indeed, but alongside Cox a tribute is particularly owed to Alice Bailey Johnson as Sonia: with underplayed glances and tiny moves of urgency she shows all the misery of unrequited love, and how much more than the glorious Yelena she deserves it.
Terry Johnson, adapting from literal translations and directing, skilfully mines it for all the author’s dry humour and regretful human absurdity:I have rarely seen a more preposterously ghastly old Professor, monster of selfishness and vanity, than Robin Soans’s. But the other Chekhovian fascination, which brings directors and audiences constantly back to the works, is that because of the intricate subtleties and sympathies every production leaves you with a slightly different heartache. Twice lately, in the final scene between Sonia and her uncle, it has been Vanya I wept for (Roger Allan had me in actual tears). This time the greater sorrow was for Sonia.
And even a little too for Alec Newman’s Astrov, a fiery forerunner of all our modern fears about the rapine of nature and the rich soil, yet one who cannot see how Sonia would suit his deeper needs because he can only see glorious, idle Yelena – though “all she does is eat and sleep and glide around entrancing us all”. She too has her humanity, trapped by her elderly horror of a husband and alienated from her one talent (oh, that slam of the piano lid in he long stormy drunken night !). And , as if to remind us that only universal sympathy can save us, the awful Professor Sebreriakov, self-serving hypochondriac fraud, himself has his moment of aged pain, looking back at the time when he was someone. “I am in exile from my past. My past, where I belong!”.
But all of them, all of us, are anchored by the old folk, Nanny and the sweetly useless Teliegin, who know that geese cackle, life goes on, and as long as you have tea and bread and vodka, it just bloody well has to do. Can’t think of a better morality for Brexitmas 2018.
www. hampsteadtheatre.com to 12 Jan
L’CHAIM – TO LIFE! A SPECIAL NIGHT
We are there, over a century ago, beyond the Caucasus. Designer Robert Jones has wrapped us around in rustic planks and ramshackle cottages, with a village pump and a woodland beyond showing skies of , as the wedding song goes “Sunrise, sunset..”. Tevye’s dairy cart, the buckets and brooms wielded by his five daughters and weary wife all speak of establishment, domesticity, a homespun and sometimes hungry community in little Anatevka . It breathes old Jewish faith, irony, gossip, feuds , family. But their world is changing, and before the end the Constable – himself under orders, reluctant, fed up – will have given every one of them three days to sell up and clear out. Hunched, laden shapes will fade into the dusk.
My companion of last night had a father who, at the age of sixteen, fled from just such a shtetl in rural Russia, arriving penniless and wandering to make at last a life here. Even without that connection, in that intimate space Trevor Nunn’s marvellous production would have struck deep into the heart. For all the characterful jokes and romantic sweetness, when Stein, Boch and Harnick’s classic musical is well done it always takes on the air of a ritual commemoration. So it should. As Tevye says, they are all, like the fiddler on the roof , “trying to scratch out a pleasant simple tune without breaking our necks”. Like the Highland Clearances, like any refugee tide in the world, it is one of the saddest stories.
And the beauty of the show (especially here, so close to the clattering buckets, whirling dances and exasperated family moments ) is how fast, completely and lovingly , the viewer is drawn in to a community which for all its feuds, flaws and absurdities did nothing to deserve it. Sober, kindly, ancient, benerous knowing that even for the poor it is “a blessing to give”, they draw us to them. Good people in a terribly changing time. Where, as our hero remarks “an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, makes the whole world blind and toothless”.
Andy Nyman’s stocky, practical Tevye is a joy from the start: grumbling to his God with headshaking informality, proud of his mastery as Papa and wedded to tradition, unable to repress a certain inner joyfulness even in his attempts at sternness. He kids himself that he is master of his five daughters and who they marry, yet always proves too soft a soul not to talk himself out attempts at correctness. The daughters are perfect: Molly Osborne’s serious Tzeitel determined to avoid the matchmaker’s elderly choice and stick with shy Motl the tailor, Harriet Bunton’s Hodel who bravely risks dancing with the revolutionary student Perchik at the wedding; later a more serious dereliction of Jewish duty as their younger sister marries out. All five are perfect, catching precisely the combination of irrepressible youth and sober-frocked traditional demeanour as around them the men drink and laugh and quarrel, and Judy Kuhn’s equally perfect Mama Golde rolls her eyes impatiently and holds family and community together.
Close up the show’s great set-pieces are intoxicating: wildest of Cossack dancing from the Russians interleaved with Jewish traditional moves, every brief fracas timed to perfection, every gloriously Jewish switch of mood from sentiment to sarcasm timed to a hair. You gasp and laugh and shiver in recognition and , yes, love. However many times you have seen it this tight, intimate, heartfelt production sparks new life. Mazel Tov!
box office 0207 378 1713 to
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DARK MAGIC, REAL THEATRE
Long, long before Harry Potter there was a gallant orphan, a boy dreamer sucked into a world of murderous magic, facing grief and responsibility alike. Two years before the Hobbits started worrying about the Ring there was another object entrusted to an innocent, a precious Box battled over by the forces of good and evil. Fifteen years before the Pevensies met the White Witch of Narnia there was the alarming Sylvia Daisy Pouncer, elegantly cold and murderously homicidal. And well before Pullman there was a sense of important magic which came, as the mysterious old bearded Cole Hawkings says, in the “in-between times, the best times” between paganism and Christianity.
The poet laureate John Masefield is ancestor of them all, in his children’s books picking up the wilful, rebellious spirit and casual familiarity with magic of E.Nesbit and – as a fine lyrical poet with a sense of mischief – running with it in more evocative, magical prose than any. This novel – and its sequel The Midnight Folk – long ago gave me nightmares about Abner Brown and a pleasing sense that courage, hope, and a nibbin of mouldy cheese offered to a treacherous rat would get you through a lot in life.
So I went with glee to Justin Audibert’s production of the first novel about Kay Harker, elegantly adapted by Piers Torday . Kay – assisted by the fierce Maria Jones and her timid brother Peter – must struggle against Brown, Pouncer and the jewel-thieving fake vicar Charles, unassisted (as is vital in all good classic children’s fiction) by a rather neglectful guardian who leaves them all alone with just “the maid”. Kay knows – from unsettling encounters on a train – that “the wolves are running tonight”. She, as befits a responsible adult, knows nothing. The wicked lot want not only the important Box, but to cancel Christmas by sabotaging the Cathedral’s midnight service (there’s a nice carolling moment when each of the clergy and choir are kidnapped in turn, leaving the Bishop singing “We one king of Orient are” until they nab him too).
My reminiscent glee remained intact all the way through. There is always a risk, in adapting a 1930s novel where good prevails and culminates in a cathedral, of it being dismissed as retro and “charming”. And, indeed of being dismissed as posh-panto for middle-class parents anxious to avoid paying fifty quid a seat for high-tech effects and tired TV personalities doing blow-job jokes. But any child or inner-child should relish this more robustly, and not just for its humour and vigour and heart but for the sheer pleasure of its theatricality. The set is a gathering of wardrobes and drapes and ladders, toweringly using the full height of Wiltons; there is deft puppetry (I felt a sudden unexpected tear when the Phoenix appears to console Kay for his parents’ loss), some very fine trapdoor-work and scampering; there’s a lake of cloth becoming a starlit sky. The only high-tech is projection, very well used to create a village, a wood, a cathedral. Otherwise it does as children’s theatre always should: demonstrates that with a few props and sheets and a kitchen table and some well-chosen words you too could make the magic.
Theo Ancient is a fine Kay, and Safiyya Ingar a properly terrifying Maria, who likes guns, piracy, fights, and – brilliantly disconcertingly – the idea of “parties in dark basements with jazz and men wearing make-up” and reckons her future is “a steamer to Argentina”. It is salutary to reflect that in Masefield in 1935 and Ransome’s Nancy Blackett five years earlier the idea of a belligerent ,tough tomboy girl in breaking the rules of ladyhood in knickerbockers was welcomed. As for the evil Pouncer, Sara Stewart in a strict black bob is properly cool and deadly, looking rather like Mary Portas gone to the dark side; and Nigel Betts is both Abner the wicked and Hawlings the good.
So OK, take the kids to the big showbiz panto but bring them here too. And expect entertaining abuses of your kitchen table and household linen, in the very good cause of growing a proper offscreen imagination…
box office 020 7702 2789 (Mon-Fri, 11am-6pm) wiltons.org.uk
to 5 Jan
DICKENS UNCHAINED: A SCROOGE FOR OUR TIMES
It is , if possible, even finer and more heartfelt and gripping, tuneable and serious and moving than last year. My former review, https://tinyurl.com/ya6695rs , describes the essential glories of Jack Thorne’s adaptation, Warchus’ glorious direction and Christopher Nightingale’s score and the weaving-in of carols : old words whose meaning, at each point, shines sharply new-minted.
So, revisiting it with a new cast – notably Steven Tompkinson as Scrooge – I remembered the glorious handbell-ringing, the finale with mad potato chutes , parachuting Brussels sprouts, jokes, its warmth, the perennial quality of its moral and the striking modernity of Thorne’s emphasis on how Scrooge’s awful childhood made him. I had forgotten, though, the other subtlety he mines from Dickens about the miser’s lost youth: the way that parental debts fuelled his frantic financial ambition to become rich before approaching his beloved Belle. I had forgotten too the poignant coda where the old man meets her again, and her acceptance of his place in her history; forgotten the moment in Christmas Future when we see the great-hearted forgiveness of Bob Cratchit. Despite being sacked for poor timekeeping after his son dies he merely thanks Scrooge for “teaching him discipline”.
All these layers of meaning and benignly sorrowful acceptance of the shapes of life make Thorne’s version something more than a massively entertaining and original rework of Dickens for the 21c. I hope it comes back every year. But what also needs saying is that Steven Tompkinson – who I remember most from lightish comedy, all the way Drop the Dead Donkey – is really remarkable here, displaying great range, subtlety and heart . He takes Scrooge from the familiar nicely ludicrous cantankerousness through unease, tentative self-understanding, furious defiance, shivering fear and a compassion which torn from him as if by savage violence when Tiny Tim (very very gorgeously tiny) seems lost.
In the final moments, dark and silent around the solo carol just before redemption’s happy Christmas dawn, he also evokes the real, unavoidable pain of redemption: how it hurts to throw off the security of a lifetime’s mental habits and emotional lockdown.
Of course he then capers, as per Dickens, “light as a feather” in the morning, and masterminds the vast dinner in Warchus’ hilarious coups de theatre (I thought the turkey on the zip-wire would deck him for good). But there is a sobriety, an aweful seriousness to what has happened to this man, a wrench which this production recognizes more firmly than most. The coda makes this real; and, in a last quiet moment after the charity appeal and bows, so does the last handbell rendering of Silent Night. Many Christmas shows end in pure merriment and there is greatness in Warchus’ decision to offer us instead that moment of quiet reflection, with Scrooge and the little child kneeling together at the centre of the bellringers, overcome.
Tears. So there should be. Even writing it down.
box office 0844 871 7628 to 19 Jan
DARK DOINGS AND DISSECTION
Oyez, Oyez. Let it be known that this suspenseful yet dreary political season has become officially the Year Of Dark Panto. Down at The Bridge we had Martin McDonagh’s “very very very” dark – and somewhat silly – imagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s Congolese attic-dwarf-prisoner who never was. Now, with fewer pretensions and a lot more laughs , give a hand to Tom Wentworth’s spirited and largely true story of Burke and Hare. Their trade in 1828 was murdering lodgers in Mrs Hare’s boarding-house and selling their bodies, for seven to ten quid apiece, to a keen anatomist of the Edinburgh medical school. Up from the Watermill at Newbury, directed con brio by Abigail Pickard Price, it is an absolute blast. It is done in the dramatic-cum-vaudeville-reduced-Shakespeare-National-Theatre-of-Brent genre : rapid costume changes, doubling and tripling and deliberate undermanning. Its two-hour merriment should keep the tiny Jermyn packed nicely from here to nearly Christmas.
It’s a three-hander, with Alex Parry as Hare, Hayden Wood as Burke and the hilariously fierce Katy Daghorn (like Wood, she has Play that Goes Wrong experience, always a good sign) . She is both their womenfolk, and also introduces the piece as Monro, the indignant rival surgeon who lost out by not being on the Burke and Hare customer list. But equipped with a splendid variety of pre-Victorian lowlife costumes – leprous tailcoats, repellent mufflers, broken hats and disgusting bloodstained aprons – they all play random others : locals, doctors, visitors, a large extended family : anyone, depending on who’s needed at that moment on the tiny stage . A stage which is – courtesy of designer Toots Butcher – atmospherically decorated with anatomical drawings and filthy side curtains . The hurtling exchanges of mop-caps, fancy hats and aprons is rapid, but you soon work out that whoever’s temporarily got the maroon tailcoat and top-hat is having to represent Ferguson, a thick medical student and boozy habitué of the lodging-house bar and its passing tarts.
They are all three rapid, adept and funny, and when strictly necessary co-opt one of the front row as a corpse, on which the anatomists lavish repulsively descriptive insults while it shakes helplessly like the rest of us (“Och, aye…a little gas escaping from the mooth there”). From time to time Burke and Hare, being Irishmen, break out into choruses of “Nancy Whisky” and “Whisky in the Jar”.
There are some fine set-pieces, like the pair’s attempt to shop around Surgeons’ Square for a buyer, with windows opening and shutting to reveal various versions of Daghorn. The pathetic bumbling stupidity of the pair and the brisk exasperation of Mrs Hare endears the awful trio just enough to take our minds off their murderousness . And like all the best nonsenses in this genre, the play has the nerve to offer one moment of proper heart and pathos: dropping into quieter song and a moment of very brief historical narration when a late victim – Daft Jamie – is disposed of . He was a pathetic but beloved figure in the Edinburgh community and his murder caused, it is reported, the greatest outrage . So he gets his moment , Parry giving him a brief, elusive moment of dignity before the next joke . Nice.
boxoffice jermynstreettheatre.co.uk to 21 dec