Monthly Archives: July 2019

OKLAHOMA                   Chichester Festival Theatre

COWBOYS WITHOUT INDIANS

   

    I suppose it’s perverse to start at the end, but of all the aspects of Jeremy Sams’ handsome production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein crowd-pleaser,   the bit that sticks, and stimulates,  is that troublesome  “finale ultimo” after the big faux-finale chorus of the title song.  

        Curly (a gloriously handsome, soaringly tuneful Hyoie O’Grady) has won Laurey, but on their wedding night Jud Fry, the lonely, angry, ugly farmhand  they treat like dirt comes back drunk with a knife,  and in the scuffle is killed.   And on the spot, despite one farmer’s worried demurral,  the local judge conducts a kangaroo court in the yard and accepts Curly’s Not Guilty plea without bothering with official process and paperwork.  So off go the happy couple in a jalopy,  and everyone sings “Everything’s going my way!”.   

 

\    Everyone white, that is.  For in a bit of what must be deliberate casting, Jud (always a troubling figure) is the only black man in the cast.   He was indeed  drunk and threatening,  but he was also poor, lonely, sacked, and had originally been led on by Laurey    she got him to drive her to the social to make Curly jealous. Then he was taunted by her lover  to hang himself,   in the weirdly compelling  “Jud is daid” scene. Fankly, given America’s racial history and recent events  the breezily informal exoneration of Curly and dismissal of Jud’s corpse felt a bit, well, edgy. 

  

    Edgy and interesting;  just as much as the other thoughtful casting of an actor of colour (there’s a programme note about how the Wild West settlers dispossessed the native-Americans).    Sams casts Amara Okereke – dark-skinned – as Laurey,  and gives her a very Cherokee-heritage look with that long black plait.   Well, pioneer men did sometimes marry “Indians”, and have children, so why not?   The result is that for all the merriment,   the production has uneasy overtones.  These come  to a head in the  extraordinary sexual  ballet of Laurey’s dream (Matt Cole’s choreography)   as white-skirted whirling girls turn into raunchy burlesque tarts straddling Friesian-hide-clad cowboys,   and the black threatening figure of Jud brings fire, smoke and murderous violence.   Until  the real Jed,  anxious and spruced-up for courtship,  wakes the girl and is shrilly rejected as she hurls herself at Curly.  

  

    All this adds astringency,  and a good thing too , to this most brilliantly operatic of musicals, where every number rises from the story as natural as birdsong.    Jud Fry has always been the dark, problematic heart of it, and without milking it,  the political-racial unease helps.   Not least because the early scenes felt oddly  conventionally, almost disappointingly so.    We have enjoyed the  musical-theatre lollipops:   the Surrey with a Fringe On Top  and the lively nonsense of  Bronté Barbé as Ado Annie having  excellent fun with Scott Karim as a rather Russell-Brandish  pedlar.   But it’s Jud , with his loneliness and his fate that wake it up.  

   

      Emmanuel Kojo has a wonderful dark baritone, and his nightmare song in the smokehouse is riveting in contrast with the shallow, flippant rom-com figure of Curly. And Okereke herself is  a perfect Laurey:   the finest voice of the year,   soaring effortlessly or dropping to a mesmerizing contralto richness.    If the overall effect is more of  a puzzle-play than a lollipop romp, so much the better.    Oh, and Josie Lawrence as the vigorous Aunt Eller looks worryingly at home with two kinds of gun.     

 

box office cft.org.uk   to 7 Sept

rating four      4 Meece Rating  

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THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA       Noel Coward, WC2

FALLEN ANGELS ENDURING THE STORM 

  

    You can feel the heat in Rae Smith’s design,  Mexican sun on the rock overhead, and the corrugated iron roofs of the rundown hotel. Somewhere below the cliffside verandah an  invisible tour-bus hoots impatiently for its leader,   as the disgraced Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon yells down to  his rebellious Baptist ladies that they are staying on here  and to hell with the schedule as per brochure. 

 

      Clive Owen is Shannon,   returning to the London stage with no inconsiderable triumph, a masterfully crumpled white suit and a positively demonic level of energy.   This pastor, fresh out of the Casa Locos asylum with a breakdown,   struggles to reconcile life’s brochure -schedules (and conventional theology and behaviour)  with the vague truth of something beyond.  Unfortunately the something has most recently materialised  as statutory rape of a very eager 16-year- old.    His altercation with a magnificently harsh and furious Finty Williams as the girl’s duenna  is watched with lustful amusement by Anna Gunn as Maxine,   the exuberantly décolletée newly-widowed  scruff who runs the hotel.

  

      Into the mix appear more strangers:   the travelling watercolourist and sketch peddler Hannah, and her 97 year old grandfather Nonno  “the world’s oldest  practising poet”.   In the play’s last moments he will at last speak his final poem, evoking the fall and rot of fruit, “the earth’s obscene, corrupting love”. 

 

My hard-hearted young colleague Luke Jones has observed that you know you’re watching Tennessee Williams if “everyone talks like a teenage poet”. But then, Williams himself quoted an accusation that he had only “ the uncontrolled emotionalism of a minor lyric talent totally unsuited to the stage of life as well as the theatre”.    But if you love him no emotional overkill or slo-mo breakdown will be too much.    I think this is a  tremendous   play,   perhaps without the explosive excitements of Streetcar or the simpler poignancy of the Glass Menagerie,   but distilled Williams, groping for meaning.  Nor does director  James Macdonald jib at letting it tip gruellingly over the three hour mark. I staggered out ,properly overwhelmed but thrilled to have been there.   Williams  has much to say about degradation, breakdown, innocence, guilt, God, sex, pain , wild nature and loneliness.  

 

       His gift is as ever  to say it all through  characters who are  flawed to the point of being reprehensible,   yet inspire irresistible love and empathy.  Indeed the only atypical thing about this play is the intermittent and very funny invasions of the verandah by four rowdy Germans in naff beachwear,  singing Nazi Marching songs and jeering that London is burning. They do not inspire love at all, but are chucked in there simply because the author is remembering his own   depressed exile in 1940,   in just such a tropical flophouse where triumphalist German revellers were indeed part of the scenery.     Life’s patchwork absurdity need not always be simplified for a tidy stage.

 

The central  performances are judged to a hair:  Gunn’s Maxine is endearingly managerial and sometimes on the edge of cruelty,  but emotionally and sexually needy and seeing Shannon’s loneliness through his terrible behaviour.   He  is God-hungry and  sinful,  ranting at the deity as a “senile delinquent”,  struggling back into his clerical collar or ripping off his gold cross and chain. Guilty, mother-haunted, fleeing and needing women and haunted by his  “spook” depression he stands in the tradition of  Greene’s whisky-priest or Waugh’s Sebastian Flyte. 

     

    Owen gives a wonderfully physical performance , crazedly vigorous in the crackup which has him literally tied down to the hammock,   but  stilling gradually under the influence of the other key to the play’s troubled heart:  the  straight-backed Lia Williams as the oddball artist,  “a New England spinster and not young”. With her gold choirboy crop and precise calm endurance she is a still cool flame of  generous chastity.  Both do justice to the wild lush text,  rich in wonder  and filth, corruption and beauty.  It tells us only to endure,  and grow as old as  Nonno so we can speak our poem before we go.

 

box office  0844 482 5151     delfontmackintosh.co.uk   to 28 Sept

rating four  4 Meece Rating

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   JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOUR DREAMCOAT                London Palladium W1

  IT’S BACK,  YOUNGER THAN EVER…

 

  We love a starry debut, especially on opening night in a huge theatre:   a 21-year-old not yet through drama school making a stonking, belting first professional appearance in a title role.  We get on our feet:  can’t help it.  Cynicism melts, especially in musical theatre where the energy, the leaping and twirling and singing-while-dancing and sheer bodily skill brings a lump to your throat at even the blandest show.  

     

  So Laurence Connor   knew what he was doing when he cast young  Jac Yarrow in the role more often awarded to existing celebrities:   Joseph is a story about youthful dash , innocence and courage,  its school-play origins in are still at its core and deliberately underlined in this zippy new production.    Giving it such a young star underlines its freshness and fun,   and Yarrow does not let his director  down.  When he comes to the end of his big number behind bars, affirming “Children of Israel are never alone!”  we cheer.  And it’s all the cleverer an effect for Connor’s staging it  – in contrast to the previous relentless cheerfulness of the show –  with one of the few moments of sharp contemporary anxiety:  real children trapped behind him, on the iron bars.

 

         MInd you, you need troupers as well:   the Elvis Pharaoh who bursts on us deafeningly in the second half  is Jason Donovan,  and  the peerless Sheridan Smith is the narrator,    frolicking and clowning  and gagging,   whipping a false beard on and off to be Jacob,  every inch the manic primary-school cheerleader as she encourages and leads a wonderfully child-heavy cast (there are 32 of them in rep:   on press night little Potiphar stole his moment, as well he should).  

        As I say, it began as a school musical about the biblical story of Joseph, his jealous brother’s and the prophetic dreams that saved Egypt from famine. It belongs  in the playful youth of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, a stage of life when pastiche is mischievous fun, energy raw and you can get away with lines like “All those things you saw in your pyjamas /  Were a long range forecast for your farmers”.    Lloyd Webber’s inalienable romanticism could already soar easy as a bird into  songs like Any Dream Will Do,  and his sense of parody in the developing show include styles  from Country & Western to Maurice Chevalier (“Ah, zose Canaan days..”),  bubblegum pop and retro tap numbers to that gold-plated Elvis moment here awarded to Pharaoh Jason Donovan.  Of the latter,  the only snag is that unlike the excellent verbal clarity of the rest, it is entirely impossible to follow his growly-rock account of his dreams.  But if you bring a child not yet familiar with the Bible stories of the seven years harvests,  shame on you anyway.

        

    So it’s pure pleasure,  in energy and design (Morgan Large has more fun than is decent, what with Egyptian slavers on tricycle-powered camels, a 15ft gold Anubis statue that mimes with a guitar, and hieroglyphs including beefburgers.  The coat itself is magnificent,  with echoes of Edina Monsoon’s taste in OTT Lacroix).   Sheridan Smith frolics with lunatic competence,  a windmill of energy (see her give the Pharaoh a shoulder rub!  Observe  herself wildly flinging herself at poor Joseph  as Mrs Potiphar in a leopardshkin rug, head and all).  Dance styles draw from Riverdance to Breakdance and most stops in between.   Fun is had. 

box office  lwtheatres.co.uk   to 8 September

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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PETER GYNT Olivier, SE1

GUEST CRITIC BEN DOWELL IS CAPTIVATED BY LIFE’S FUTILE MISSION…

 

Peer Gynt, Ibsen’s almost unperformable meandering 1867 epic, –  written as a poem and not really designed for the stage –   has been a problem for directors for more than a century. In Willy Russell’s 1983 film Educating Rita, Julie Walter’s aspiring graduate answered her first essay question about the problem of staging it with the words “do it on the radio”. She could just as well have said “get David Hare”.

 

Because what the veteran playwright has done is nothing short of marvellous – bringing the saga bang up to date, he has made it a searching inquisition into today’s online, self-obsessed world, a place where, as Peter tells us, “people don’t have lives any more, they have stories”. Hare has made as much sense of Ibsen’s sprawling masterpiece as seems possible.

 

Peter’s futile mission to discover a sense of his self throughout his story (never mind the human cost of those he encounters) is so redolent of the narrative-making of narcissistic Instagrammers the world over it’s almost eerie. Added to that the prefiguring of Freud in Peter’s dreaming, his egotism and his problems with his mother accentuate a sense that this is an astonishingly prophetic piece of work.

 

James McCardle’s Peter is living on a remote Scottish island in this telling, just back from a war somewhere in the Middle East and full of mendacious claims of his heroism. This obviously allows Hare to scratch all his itches about Tony Blair and Weapons of Mass destruction, which feels a bit overdone.

The moment mid-way though his story when Peter makes his fortune, becoming a reckless Florida gold club-owning businessman and head of Gynt Enterprises is also rather blunt in its satire of You-Know-Who in the White House.  But the play’s Fake Noos-ish assertion that “if people believe you did something then you did it” certainly makes this feel more justified in Hare’s retelling.

 

But he certainly goes a bit far at the close,  when David Cameron pops up to bemoan his failure to understand the wishes of voters who weren’t as privileged as him. It’s a fair point to make, but it didn’t add much dramatically,  and felt more like the kind of jokey insertion you’d expect at the Hackney Empire panto than the National. It also prompted that most irritating of National Theatre traditions – the knowing, liberal guffaw.

 

Still, it’s bonkers in a wonderful way, and you’ll be thinking of it long after the curtain comes down. Not just of our own age and problems but the stories and traditions it emanates from – the story of Job,, or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  And director Jonathan Kent’s staging is quite breathtaking at times. Designer Richard Hudson’s clutter-free stage evokes the majesty and grandeur of this epic story with fabulous evocations of a Troll dinner party with a skewed table, the Egyptian desert, and Peter’s sea-voyage complete with enormous ship.

 

But in the end it all comes back to Peter, and his sudden sense at the close that most of our lives, however much we want to be at the centre of the world, are mediocre and hollow.  McArdle is more than up to the job, coping with a hugely demanding night with intelligence and verve; his Peter is infuriating  for most of the play,  and its testament to our lead’s skill  is that we continue to root for him.  And we are left with some hard and painful questions of our own.

 

nationaltheatre.org.uk   to 8 October

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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MEASURE FOR MEASURE Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

DEVOTION , DISGUISE,  DECADENCE  

  What a strange and stirring play this is!    Set in convent, court and condemned-cell,  it is spiked with moral ambiguities and fuelled equally by sexual desire and sexual distaste,   as Isabella refuses to yield her chastity for a brother’s life.  There’s a Winters-Tale resurrection moment, several powerful emotional cliffhangers,  questions about corrupt power ,   necessary  disguises  and defiances.  Dark villainy is given a curious reprieve and purity questioned.    Last time the RSC did Measure for Measure was in the Swan, with whips, nipple clamps, spiked leather collars, and Mariana hanging out  sullenly in the Moated Grange in a filmy negligée and studded biker belt.  I enjoyed it.   It had ‘élan.   But this production strikes deeper. 

 

       Set in Vienna 1900 under Gregory Doran’s thoughtful, clear and gripping direction,  this time there is not a fetish in sight,   though plenty of stocking-tops and bustiers and no small pleasure –  as Angelo cracks down on the brothelkeepers – in seeing Graeme Brookes’  huge-frocked Mistress Overdone swing both her arresting officers around by their chains .  More pleasure indeed when the said Brookes reappears as Barnadine,  the belching, farting,  degenerate murderer who refuses to be executed because he’s having a kip, and in the end whoops along the walkway to freedom. Pompey the pimp is given full rein by David Ajao, and as for Joseph Arkley poncing around in spats and a malacca cane as Lucio,  and interrupting the final judgement, words fail me.  There are malapropisms from Constable Elbow and a particularly creepy weirdness in Abhorson the executioner, and it’s all done superbly.  

 

        But what Doran frames most brilliantly is the central confusion of morality.  The Duke-Friar is the anchor of   it (if sometimes an unreliable one, Anthony Byrne showing him both determined and troubled).     As  for his better behaved henchmen,  the director’s decision to cast Claire Price as Escalus and  Amanda Harris as a really excellent, watchfully troubled Provost is a gender-switch  used with great intelligence.  Here are  two grown, completed women are drawn into the play’s conflicted atmosphere of sexual sin:   not buying it,  aware that Angelo is wrong,  quietly maternal towards poor Claudio. As indeed we all were:   James Cooney’s delivery of the speech about the terror of death was heart-stopping.   Sandy Grierson’s Angelo is a puzzle,   but then Angelo always is:  his smooth-pated suaveness chiefly makes you reflect that the worst villains are often weak characters.  

    

      As for Lucy Phelps’ Isabella,   she is simply tremendous and will be   memorable for years.  She  is credible both in her eager devoutness and solid defiance,   and in the breathtaking moment of despair when her whole body becomes a terrible Munch scream.   The scenes between her and  Mariana are womanly, intense and real;      that Doran leaves us uncertain that this woman will agree to marry the Duke creates an final moment which most excellently serves the play’s problematic quality.  Wonderful. 

www.rsc.org.uk   to 4th April 

rating five 5 Meece Rating

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THE END OF HISTORY Royal Court SW1

BLAIR TO BREXIT – A FAMILY TALE 

 

     Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany,  are the Harry Potter team.  They know how not to bore.   But they’ve been here before too in a  Royal Court state-of-the-nation mood,   and they can make that just as gripping.  HOPE was a wonderful,  unsentimental portrait of a Labour council struggling with funding cuts which ended with a boy telling an old man ““It’s possible I will have a better life than you.  The world’s sort of pointless, if you don’t try”.    And this play picks up that theme  of people trying, despite all doubts and clashes of interest and personality, to make the world better. 

 

A cosy, boho, battered family kitchen, trees glimpsed through bricky gaps, holds one family’s reunions in 1997, 2002 and 2017 David Morrissey and Lesley Sharp are the parents:  children of the spirit of ‘68, protest marchers, idealists.  He is immersed,  over his newspaper,  in the shaming statistics of inequality and worried about declining prison education.  She is lively, dryly funny,  a stranger to “appropriateness”, a Greenham veteran,    disappointed in  Tony Blair.  The children were all named after socialist icons.

 

As we first meet them, Kate O’Flynn’s  Polly is home from Cambridge and whining about giving her bedroom up to the new girlfriend of the eldest Carl, and Tom is in detention for trading hash.  The girlfriend, Harriet, is from a property-rich Catholic Family,   and Carl needs his pro-choice  liberal parents to fund her abortion.   Irony piles on irony as the nuances of social distinction and ideology interweave.    Zoe Boyle as Harriet, in this and as later as a fed-up wife  in  the 2002 scene, delivers a masterclass of deadpan distaste in her chilly Sloane reaction to the banter,  irritable warmth and familiar  allusions of the host family.

 

Costumes and appearance denote the passing times and changes, though Morrissey is not old until his final, resonant scene in praise of his wife’s life and causes. Which is quite brilliantly written and performed: the old firebrand reformer softened, humanised, unforgettable.

 

An important achievement  is that from the first moments we believe in the individual reality of this family,  as firmly as in EM Forster’s  Schlegels (to whom they may well  owe a debt: certainly  Harriet is a Wilcox, representing capitalist pragmatism.) So  we follow them,  engrossed by the way that  the young can never really live up to the shining parental idealism as  the 21c world  of smartphone sexting and pitiless employment shapes their lives in a way alien to the ‘60s spirit.    Polly is chippy, clever, lawyerly, ;  Carl disappointed, thwarted,  drawn in to Harriet’s world and spat out.  But the most wrenchingly real,is the youngest Tom ; Laurie Davidson  gives up,   in every glance and gesture,  a vulnerability that stops your heart.

 

      However,  caringly and  without spoiling one of the emotional shocks of the play, let me plead with the playwright community to recognise that some modern tropes have run their course and are getting as hackneyed as “The drink! It was poisoned!”  used to be in melodrama.  I mean the one where there’s a family altercation, and a troubled youth vanishes offstage to bedroom or bathroom .  Beat, beat,  pause  – family look at one another aghast –  someone runs off    there’s a shot or a horrified scream.     It’s too easy.  Mike Leigh has done it,  the  normally subtler  Florian Zeller has just done it.  Now Thorne.  Enough already!  it’s becoming  emotionally cheap.   And some of us can see it coming minutes early.    Capeesh?

 

Box Office: +44 (0)20 7565 5000 boxoffice@royalcourttheatre.com

To 10  August

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

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NOISES OFF Lyric, Hammersmith

FARCE AS LIFE, LIFE AS FARCE, FRAYN AGAIN TRIUMPHANS

  

    It felt like a pilgrimage,  homage to pay.   37 years ago Michael Frayn’s greatest of comedies, a wicked love-song to the great age of touring rep,   premiered in this very theatre.  Since then it has taken London and Broadway crowns and swept the world in  – as the author muses –  often some pretty ramshackle versions.  “In Prague they performed the play for some ten years without Act 3 and no one noticed until I arrived…One Christmas Eve in Sicily two different touring productions turned up in Catania at the same time”.   

 

         I am glad that before various grander outings I saw it first,  in the late 80’s,  in one of those potentially ramshackle versions.  It was Jill Freud’s Southwold rep, and rather good,  but to this day I cannot understand how they managed to rig up the full front-view set and then, after the interval,   its backstage reverse.  Because St Edmunds Hall is a venue so small that sometimes the only way for an actor  to re-enter stage right is to dart out through the churchyard in the rain. But they did it. 

 

I mention this – though I’ve seen it twice since on grander stages – to emphasise the sheer love this play sparks.  Frayn shows us a theatre company in chaotic dress rehearsal of a banal farce, with doors and sardine-plate props and panicking couples,  deftly  sketching the cast’s cross-currents of personality, relationships and practical difficulties.   After an interval he reverses the scenery  so we see them a month into the tour, from backstage.  As the show is half-heard behind the curtain the players,  tired and mutely furious,   flare into personal conflict.    Then for the brief last act we are out front again watching their total dissolution at the end of the tour.      In doing this Frayn  lays open human life’s compromises, inadequacies and instabilities , and reminds us that much of our existence tends to be a desperate attempt to put on a show and keep our end up in public.   In relieved joy, we recognize it and  laugh. 

 

    We laugh very hard.   Around me in the second act last night several people seeing it for the first time were actually rendered helpless.     It was press night  and therefore,  because the gods of farce are very thorough in their ways,   on that very night Jeremy Herrin’s  faultless production  suffered  a brief  – and real    unscheduled blackout near the end of the backstage act.   The  audience could hardly contain its glee.   It’s rarely that an electrical cock-up actually enhances a show, but it did.     Either it could be called tautology – a theatre-breakdown  in the depiction of a theatre-breakdown –  but I prefer to think of it as an oxymoron:  because here was the most tightly disciplined and controlled of productions being cruelly deprived of control. …

 

  All the cast are bang on the nail, though I must single out Meera Syal as Dotty, playing the old housekeeper, for her physical deftness in moving.   In character she does the shuffling stage-crone thing,   but when pausing over a sardine plate confusion and shouting to the director in the house  (who, blissfully, was striding around right next to my seat) she  uncoils like a serpent to become the magisterial old diva she is.    As the show goes on,  more and more conflicted,   her Dotty sometimes  forgets to shuffle and then suddenly remembers and we choke laughing.

 

    Jonathan Cullen too is is very fine too as poor Freddie,  struggling with his personal life and nosebleeds,  and Debra Gillett catches the cooing, caring, reconciling infuriatingness of Belinda to a T.    And good old Jeremy Herrin makes sure to milk the final moments before and after the third act with some wicked curtain-jokes.   

   And even when it’s over,  you can – as always in this show – take away and cherish the insert in the programme with a spoof- intellectual analysis of the nature of farce (bit to be be reproduced in any Almeida or NT programme without exciting comment) and the company biographies.    I cherish in particular Belinda’s stage CV beginning aged 4 in “Miss Toni Tanner’s Ten Tapping Tots”  and  the claim that Garry Lejeune while stil at drama school won the “Laetitia Daintyman medal for violence”.   Joy.   

 

box office  lyric.co.uk   to 27 July

rating five 5 Meece Rating

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