Monthly Archives: May 2019

THE STARRY MESSENGER Wyndhams, WC2

THE STARS LOOK DOWN. AND SIGH

 

  Overarching it all is a dome, a sky clouded or moonlit, starry or dim.  This matters. Sometimes lighting makes the walls of the revolving rooms – lecture-hall, hospital ward, domestic – translucent so that the great shining cosmos filters into the small brief human lives we are watching.   I loved that.  I wish more was made of it in  Kenneth Lonergan’s odd, diffuse,  deliberately low-powered play.  Because he – and his star Matthew Broderick, who first played it off-Broadway and loyally returns – first met at the New York Hayden planetarium where this is set.  Such ideas matter to them.  

 

It is about a mid-life crisis.  In the lecture-room Broderick’s Mark is a tweedy little man, teacherly, polite, doing an adult education lecture and fielding questions alternately moronic, truculent, and smart-alecky.   These are often very funny: there’s a dry regretful comedy in the play at its best.  Mark goes home and there’s his wife Anne (Elizabeth McGovern) going on and on as wives do about Christmas arrangements involving her mother and her mother’s friend staying, and a sofa-bed.   His listless politeness operates there too. “It’s too complicated” , pleads the man who lectures on the cosmos.  

 

  But meanwhile he has met a sparky trainee nurse, Rosalind Eleazar (a West End debut and she’s great!).   She has a nine-year-old son who loves the Planetarium, whereas Mark and Anne just have a sullen offstage teenager torturing a guitar.  A sort of affair ensues.   The soft slow-paced bewilderment and disengagement of Mark makes it hardly torrid:  but it sparks something, and urged on by his livelier colleague he staggers modestly forward into applying for a more fulfilling job, at lower pay, on a project to measure the Universe.    Meanwhile Angela the nurse is sweetly tending an old man in hospital (a very splendid Jim Norton)  and crossing swords with his fraught daughter (another interesting performance from Sinead Matthews).    And back in the lecture room poor Mark is confronted by a monstrous student of the new generation (Sid Sagar) who has written an unsolicited five-page assessment of the lecturer’s faults and merits and feele entitled to deliver it. And to explain that it is the teacher’s fault if he doesn’t listen because “A student’s natural state of rest is a wandering mind”.  

   

    Sometimes this three-hour play is frankly a bit dull , sometimes there are very good laughs indeed (Jenny Galloway as a nightmare student is a joy, so is Sagar). There are flashes of wisdom, and those stars sometimes shining through the walls to remind you how small we really are.  There is, late on, one real and visceral shock.  

  

      But its strength is that despite its low-temperature and slow pace,   it’s hard not to love Broderick’s Mark.   There is a sweet kindly passionless puzzlement about him,  a wistful unfulfilment.    Broderick carries it with controlled, modest perfection. When I left I thought I was disappointed in the play.    But this morning I can’t help thinking about Mark, and his wife, and  the sadness of all our middle years as they shade towards nightfall..   

 

box office 0333 023 1550   to 10 August

 rating three  3 Meece Rating

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RUTHERFORD AND SON Lyttelton, SE1

BULLYING, BOMBAST,   BETRAYAL

    

The rediscovery of Githa Sowerby in the 1990s is very satisfying.     At its premiere in 1913 critics saw the quality of this one but were dismayed at its female origin:  “You might suspect her of eating chocolates or talking nonsense in the shade . . . never dream that she could be the author of a play with the grim force of a Pinero or the sureness of a Galsworthy”.  Actually it is more like Ibsen:   a new-century’s howl of irritated perception at the imprisoning absurdities of society.  Not just the submission of women but the class structure:   all the characters are stuck in a world where a self-made Northern industrial patriarch has educated and drawn his children upmarket and thus  marooned them in a world where neither the village nor the gentry talk to them. 

 

    Sowerby knew the turf:  old Rutherford, like her own grandfather, runs a glassworks:  she has the tech at her fingertips when the talk is of colliery strikes or experimental work with a muffle furnace  and a new formula (invented by the weak ambitious son John, whose blustering hope for a quick fortune reminds one irresistibly of today’s digital startup dreamers ).

 

But she also has the psychology right, and much of the play’s brilliance lies in a sideline (perhaps rather feminine) observation of male behaviour and female entrapment,  almost rueful sometimes in its even=handedness.  Rutherford is a singleminded workaholic and a bully, but vulnerable:  his closest relationship is the uneven but necessary one with Martin the foreman,   and his fear of being gossiped about and laughed at is a throbbing Achilles heel.  The shadow of the late wife, who “spoiled with poetry books” the eldest son is never far off.  The bombast and vapid ambition of son John is drawn with pitiless accuracy, rendered in a curious half-posh accent by Sam Troughton, yet his wife Mary’s devastating understanding of him at is shaded with maternal protectiveness.   Richard , the other son, is a pale prayerful dolt, “bullied into a  fool”.    And as for the workingman Martin, his  piteous emotional enslavement to the Master is almost horribly evoked by Joe Armstrong in his panicked, collapsing scene with Janet.   Drawn into three kinds of betrayal as the tales goes on, he  is depicted with both contempt and compassion.

   

I last saw it in 2013 in Halifax under Jonathan Miller, and Polly Findlay’s production  is subtler still.  Not least because Roger Allam is old Rutherford, and his strength is in subtlety.  He rises to the roaring bullying tone  at the few times it is necessary,   and has the drop-dead dry timing to deliver lines like the one to his curate son Richard about there being no shortage of ways to shirk “and religion is as good as any”.    But equally eloquent is his stillness: sitting foursquare, so secure in pitiless authority that shouting is redundant because  folk will  do what he wants,  end of.  So when real shock shakes him at the news of Janet’s closeness to Martin he gets up, roams about visibly losing that gravitational smugness, and cannot rest still until he has bent back his “servant”  Martin to obedience and thrown out his daughter. 

 

  Every detail in Lizzie Clachan’s firelit  period set underlines the captivity of Sowerby’s time and world.  Barbara Marten as the scornful aunt mocks the bows – “trash fit for a monkey at a fair” on the baby-bonnet sewn by the daughter-in-law Mary .    Anjana Vasan as Mary is not only excellent in herself but clever casting: Sowerby made her a clerical worker despised as lower-class,  but her Asian colouring gives an extra modern bite to sneers about “marriages like yours”.   Sally Rogers as the harridan mother of a pilfering worker has a bravura cameo, and lights the final fuse on the family’s dissolution.   Psychology,  social rage,  human sadness and betrayal move in an elegant circle, and Findlay’s direction doesn’t miss a beat of it. 

 

box office nationaltheatre.org.uk         to  3 August

rating five   5 Meece Rating

      

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ANNA Dorfman SE1

EAST OF THE WALL, INSIDE YOUR EARS 

 

We are peering through a glass  screen at a flat in East Berlin, early 70s.  The Cold War and GDR political severity are in full force behind the Wall. Anna is an economics lecturer, preaching the beauty of the socialist community  and it’s compulsory co-operative family love to her students.  Her husband Hans has been made a Section Manager;  her neighbour Elena’s husband has been taken away by he Stasi and replaced by a new boss , who may not be quite what he seems . But who, the regime being what it is, inspires doglike loyalty. Or else.

 

After the querulous , inward-looking tedium of her feminist polemic THE WRITER Ella Hickson returns to interesting form with this curiosity:   a sort of McBurney-meets-leCarré mini-thriller, an hour long and involving  everyone donning headphones.   So all we hear is what Anna, our heroine, hears either alone or  in the course of an awkward party to celebrate Hans’  promotion.  We’re bugging her.  During the party she has an emotional meltdown over a tragic memory  from her wartime childhood 23 years before. Nor is everyone what they seem.

 

Further than that in the plot it would be wrong to go. But there are puzzles, neatly sorted by the end;  and puzzlement for us in our headphones,   not least because sharing the perspective of what Anna hears means we aren’t always sure who is talking.  Especially as  the lighting is very GDR-dim except when fireworks go off outside.

 

Phoebe Fox as Anna is impressive, as is Diana Quick’s wounded (or is she?) Elena, and Max Bennett is chillingly blond as the enigmatic new boss.   Hickson, co-creating this oddity with Ben and Max  Ringham who devise the sound design, deliberately aims to make us feel the  atmosphere of vintage iron-curtain paranoia.   Certain  sudden sharp  whispers in our headphones and a very disconcerting  blackout do achieve that.

 

At the end the silent cast in their goldfish-tank hold up  placards.  KEEP US SAFE. NO SPOILERS PLEASE . I obey.

 

 nationaltheatre.org.uk    To 15 June

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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DIDO Unicorn, SE1

DIDO, BUT DISMAL 

 

For young teens and sensible over-11s  there are few better introductions to classical, sung-through  theatrical opera than Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.  It has a pure emotional line,  a sad simple tale of love and betrayal.  IT has simple clunkety-clunk lyrics by that worst of Laureates Nahum Tate, and  rousing choruses between arias.  Perfect:  glamorous yet accessible, it plugs in to adolescent romantic yearning and sense of life’s unfairness.

 

So I hastened to sneak into an ENO matinee at the good old Unicorn, directed by its boss Purni Morell.  Surrounded by school parties and weary teachers,  I had an enjoyable enough hour (just under, actually – they need not have cut that other Witches’ chorus. We  notice these things, you know).

 

But  for some tiresome reason of “relatability” the Queen of Carthage is now a single urban Mum (we are told she is a feminist “icon” but she looks more like a wine o’clock depressive).  Belinda the attendant becomes her dungareed daughter.   The chorus too are dressed in the director’s idea of Sarf  London estate scruffwear, and Aeneas is a chap Dido  met online (laptop open, the sonorous Ndjabulo Madlala first seen projected behind).  The lazy updating obviously makes  nonsense of the story, and there is oddity rather than subtlety in making Dido herself call up the witches of doubt and betrayal.   And  Morell’s flair has deserted her when it comes to blocking: there is a weary static quality to it all.  When the chorus of neighbours are singing “the hero loves as well as you” it would really help if they addressed it to Dido,  not  the front row with their backs to her.

 

Musically   it was OK, especially Eyra Norman’s  Belinda and the spirited chorales. But it could have been a piece of theatre magic, and wasn’t. There is something depressing , even patronising, in the dully  “relatable”modern setting too. This is a generation of kids  who love Harry Potter and Game of Thrones and fantasy films:   they wouldn’t have been scared off by the odd robe or throne.  And it would have made for sense for them of   “When monarchs Unite”and Aeneas’ dutiful dereliction.

 

box office  unicorntheatre.com   To 2 June

rating two as theatre   but a musical mouse for the ensemble Musicals Mouse width fixed2 meece rating

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WHITE PEARL            Royal Court, SW1

  WHY BE WHITER?

 

  It is useful, if dismaying ,  to be reminded that skin-based racism is not exclusive to Western European bigots.   In Small Island  (scroll below) Andrea Levy pinpointed the depressing belief among traditional West Indians that a lighter skin in ‘better’.  Now in this mischievous satirical 85-minute blast by Anchuli Felicia King –   she’s Australian-Thai, as is the director Nana Dakin  – we see a corporate  crisis in a Singaporean cosmetics firm marketing a skin-whitening cream.  We also plunge into tensions between different Asian communities and attitudes. 

     

  Someone, we discover after a panicky exchange between the assertive MD Priya and the press officer Sunny,  has OK’d a new commercial for the cream.  It is snortingly racist . A girl is jilted for a whiter-skinned one,  uses the cream and gets him back ;  her rival becomes suddenly black,with an Afro and hip-hop soundtrack. Slogan –  “Only works on  inner beauty”.  

       Someone – we find out who, and very funny it is too – has leaked the video online,   and the hits and criticisms are mounting tens of thousands at a time on screens upstage.   Two other staffers are seen overhead in the Ladies’ lavatory:   Chinese Xiao, youngest and most vulnerable, is sobbing in fear of the sack.  “This is not a joke for me. In China people disappear”.  

 

    The  row uncovers not only more corporate dodginess but, blisteringly,   the unspoken differences between the six women  (the only man is a troublemaking boyfriend,  Arty Froushan hilarious as French Marcel).   Boss Priya is of Indian heritage but thoroughly Anglicized;  Sunny is Americanized Chinese, her dude-bro language when excited shading back to Singlish/Hokkien.   Also Americanized is Built,  Thai-Californian.   The company’s chemist is Soo-Jin, who is South Korean;  the other less-westernized “homelanders” are  Chinese Xiao and  Japanese Ruki.    In a brief flashback we see them discussing how all women want to be whiter : “South Asians got the whole caste thing..Thai women wanna look like Korean women..Korean women wanna look like dolls..”.

    

    But Ruki brilliantly point out that while women want whiteness they are a bit ashamed of wanting it,    so instead they should claim “Makes your skin clear and bright”.   As a universal, hilarious swipe at female insecurity and pretences,  it is superb.  Hoots from the audience.   More shocked ones when they discuss the Western outrage at the ad , and Soo-Jin blithely points out that “negroes” are not their customers .    “We do not want to be seen as saying yes to American PC culture..where we sell, Thailand, China, Philippines…ordinary Asians, they still think that blacks are dirty, smell bad, are criminals… so we do not want to be siding with the blacks..In America you have Beyonce, Oprah, Obama. In Asia the blacks are poor, immigrant, they are homeless, they commit many crimes – ”

          Priya and Sunny wince – we all do –  but the Korean blithely continues that “Indians and Middle Easterns” smell bad too,  which freaks out Priya,   until the  Korean chemist reassures her that it’s OK,  “You wear a lot of deodorant and do not eat spices” .   It is shocking, it is funny, it is the best exchange of  insulting mutual incomprehension and tactlessness since Clybourne Park.

   

    It is also useful.  We need reminding that our sensitivities about race are new, and made of historic guilt as much as any real decency.  When Korean Soo-Jin  is comforting the weeping Chinese Xiao in the privacy of the  lav,  they covertly agree that the ad is OK with them.  “Why they take it so serious? It is like they cannot understand when joke is joke. It is not some big politics whatever. It is just fun ad. Now the whole world is going crazy…”  ”Asia will not go crazy. We’ll be fine” . 

 

       The relationships are as beautifully worked out as the business manoeuvrings,  embracing  both hostility and affections. The finale is glorious, and taught me Asian insults in several languages.   The author warns us that it is a hellish difficult play to cast,  but the Court triumphs:  here’s to Kae Alexander, Farzana Dua Elahe,  Katie Leung, Kanako Nakano, Minhee Yeo and Momo Yeung.   Five mice,   because it’s different and clever and useful, and horribly good fun. 

box office  020 7565 5000            to 15 June 

rating five   5 Meece Rating

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ORPHEUS DESCENDING Menier, SE1

SULTRY, SINFUL, SHOCKING, SHINING

     

    Savagely observed  absurdity, blinding flashes of insight,  profound yearning, sudden poetry singing clear notes from the cruel  swamp of humanity.  This isn’t one of Tennessee Williams’ more familiar plays, but it has all the troubled master’s marks, glories and challenges .  Though  wisely, director Tamara Harvey of Theatre Clwyd makes no attempt to fulfil the author’s demand for the dying invalid to burn a hole through the ceiling;   and intelligently,   rather than clutter the set realistically, she  uses the striking , noble figure of Uncle Pleasant on the sidelines to speak some of Williams’ evocatively vivid stage descriptions .  The result is a riveting, disturbing and memorable evening. 

      

  The play  starts deliberately slow, casual, as women gossip in a small-town store strike all the deep-South notes:  religious hypocrisy and mania, bullying male rednecks locked in prejudice,   and fascinated local disapproval of the local wild-girl Carol Curtrere:   a superb Jemima Rooper ,  voguing around in shabby leopardprint.  She  is doubly disreputable  for her sexual freedoms and for having been a civil rights campaigner arrested as a “lewd vagrant”.  She is paid an allowance by her family to stay out of Two Rivers County, an undertaking frequently broken.  In one of those sudden poetic lines, attempting to lure the visiting Orpheus  she says that up in the cemetery the dead talk to one another all night –  and what they say is “Live!  live!”.  Hairs bristle on the back of your neck.  

        

  This long slow-moving opening teaches us many things:  that the shop’s owner Jabe Torrance is being brought back from Memphis after a serious operation,  that his wife Lady has run and improved the business , and  that her father was a “wop” Italian immigrant who ran a lively drinking-joint for the less church-minded locals.  BUt who also, having made the mistake of selling liquor to blacks,  was burned out of his property by Klansmen and died in the flames.  This left Lady destitute  so as Catrin Aaron’s bossy Beaulah puts it – ‘Jabe Torrance bought that woman,  and he bought her cheap”. 

          Thus the town itself is a key character, a vital protagonist before the principals arrive from Memphis,    Jabe with “the sweat of death on him”.  Lady is efficient but not fond,  brisk and chilly and cleverer  than the rest, standing apart.   Into this little world descends the Orphean Val,    with a snakeskin jacket and a guitar signed by Fats Waller and Bessie Smith,  wanting to  to give up wandering and seducing for a quieter life.   After some sparring,  and more strange, Williams fantasy speeches,  he gets a job in Lady’s store.  

     

  From that moment   Seth Numrich as Val and Hattie Morahan as Lady hold the stage,  control the tension,  drive the terrifying thrill-ride to disaster,.    The way their relationship develops is slow, chippy, credible and fascinating: they haven’t laid a finger on each other for the first two acts before the interval .  Morahan is miraculously real in her stiff, damaged endurance (for which we learn more reasons later).   She is not looking for cheap romance as she snaps exasperatedly “Everything you do is suggestive” .   Numrich evokes all the puzzling, youthful ambiguity of the reforming drifter  – “I have lived in corruption but I am not corrupt”,  and sings strange, mythic, otherworldly murmured songs about his feet on the grass of heaven.  When the moment comes that they finally kiss,   movingly it is he who is overcome by the reality of it.  

      

      Too deep involved,  too sorrowful for the trapped lives,  you  long for this pair to make a break for it,  assert their free wildness and get out of this hellish place (Ian Porter’s Sheriff Talbott, with his increasingly nutty visionary wife, ramps up the menace beautifully).     You are rapt until  the last terrible moments.  Uncle Pleasant looks on,  steady in his exclusion from this fearful Southern-white world,   and wild Carol comes back to claim the snakeskin jacket with the remarkable line about the roaming free creatures, the “fugitive kind” who perish but whose white bones and skins show the rest of us the way.   Stunning, strange, unforgettable.  

 

box office  menierchocolatefactory.com     020 7378 1713   to 6 July  

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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    SMALL ISLAND. Olivier, SE1

AN INTIMATE EPIC IN A FADING  EMPIRE 

 

Hard to overstate what an absolute treat this is , and on how many levels. It is a terrific yarn,  both romantic and tough, about history and Empire and sex and frustration, escape and hope and love and racism:  about promises turned to dross and the great seas of misunderstanding that roll between people.  It reminds us how  distant Commonwealth citizens dreamed of a magical Westminster castle of welcome and prosperity, and how a mean tired grey nation did not know yet how to treasure them.

 

   Andrea Levy’s novel of four families – here concentrated on  three in Helen Edmundson’s admirably clear adaptation – is staged by director Rufus Norris and designer Katrina Lindsay in surges, silhouettes, still-life freezes and fluent eloquent interactions on both sides of the Atlantic.  The fast-moving, elegant ensemble-work keeps it arresting,  and Lindsay and the movement and projection teams fill the Olivier as few productions manage :  without clutter , agoraphobia or overstatement. Entertaining pop-ups are doors and windows and furniture,  but also neat tiny cameos of  the sweet shop , the cinema,  and a pig-slaughtering shed complete with carcass  exuberantly  eviscerated as poor Queenie, daughter of the Lincolnshire soil,  flinches in bored disgust and plans escape.  The odd pop-down too:Aunt Dot’s  demise is splendid.

         In Jamaica, equally bored Hortense too dreams of escape, evoking her childhood as a blessedly “golden”-coloured child  (O that terrible hierarchy of skin shade, still troubling)  and remembering her calf-love for her cousin: the war brings the two communities into contact,  interweaving then recoiling.    Sometimes there is a diorama breadth of  projected sea , hurricane or shimmering postwar  Piccadilly glamour, sometimes narrower clips of film. Dramatically,  wartime newsreel is a  counterpoint to  a  squalid cinema  brawl between the famously racist American GIs and RAF sergeant  Gilbert from Jamaica who stands his ground with  “No Jim Crow here!”.  Most beautifully, the vast  Empire Windrush itself ends act 1 not projected on solidity like the rest,  but onto a vast white sheet, which billows and shimmers  like the mirage it proved, for many, to be.

 

You may know the Andrea Levy novel, and the dramatic events which bring together Leah Harvey’s splendidly prim, correct Jamaican Hortense and Aisling Loftus’  freer but frustrated white Queenie in Earl’s Court who woos,  tolerates then grieves -mistakenly – her stick of a husband (Andrew Rothney) who returns from policing the Partition of India with a horror of dark skins.  If you don’t know the book it doesn’t matter, indeed  it might be even better to come to the story fresh.  Because it is such a fine one, and one which we need to be re-told as the Windrush generation grow old and lately are so misused.  Gerschwyn Eustache Jnr as a cheerful Gilbert, making the most of his squalid bedsit, is a particular delight,  But so are they all.  Pure and thoughtful pleasure.  

 

 

box office nationaltheatre.org.uk         to 13 August

and will be almost as damn good on screen – NT LIVE –  27 June. 

rating five  5 Meece Rating

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