Monthly Archives: September 2019

BIG THE MUSICAL           Dominion,  W1       

GUEST REVIEWER BEN DOWELL SAYS HANKS FOR THE MEMORY , AND BRAVELY FACES THE WEIRDNESS

 

This is a lavish revival of the 1996 musical version of the 1988 Tom Hanks fantasy comedy, complete with rootin’ tootin’ orchestra, smashing sets and a very capable cast. It must have cost a bomb to put on, and iS visually spectacular, thrilling entertainment.

 

In case you need reminding of the story, 12-year-old Josh Baskin wants to be “big” (ie grown up)  to impress a pretty, slIghtly older, girl at his school .  His wish is granted following a mysterious encounter with a slot machine at a fairground. His parents think this adult who suddenly emerges at breakfast has kidnapped their son and Josh can only convince his best friend of the truth of what has happened. He flees into a  (very dangerous-looking) New York, joins an ailing toy company which has lost the knack of finding what kids find fun,   and revives its fortunes. He also meets his grown-up love interest Susan Lawrence there.

 

It may feel a little odd though, in this age of Me Too and heightened sexual awareness,  to revisit a story about a boy who actually finds what looks like proper love with a lonely adult woman. The sort of thing might have been acceptably quirky and downright amusing in 1988, but feels a little weird today.

 

But it’s a thoroughly enjoyable evening. As the young version of our hero Josh, Jamie O’Connor is sweet and very capable at belting out his tunes, and Jay McGuinness (of popstar and Strictly fame)  is also very adroit as the Big Baskin, moving with the right amount of childlike awkwardness (just as Tom Hanks did in the film) and really holding his own with big numbers like This Isn’t Me and When You’re Big.

 

As Susan, the pop star Kimberley Walsh hit just the right caustic notes early on as a cynical office drone, and is sweet as the woman who finds love in this unlikely quarter and has her perspective changed. She can, as we know, sing extremely well.

 

There is fun to be had. The moment when Josh meets her friends at a dinner party is laced with brilliantly knowing jokes, as is the moment when they fall against each other and he finds his reaction in his nether regions not quite what he is expecting. He has just turned 13 after all. There is also a scene when the two seemingly do go off and have sex, and the ironies of Josh’s song when they are alone together (“Do You Want To Play Games’) are obvious, but no less funny when Susan can’t believe what she is hearing.

 

Walsh also relishes the moments when her character thinks she’s found the man of her dreams, praising his innocence and directness, in contrast to all the sad sacks she’s been shacked with. Her songs also  give a poignant sense of her loneliness and yearning. The parting of the ways is movingly and sensitively done.

 

So, all in all,  smashing fun if you can cope with the fact that at the heart of it is a power-relationship dynamic raising slightly akward questions.   But not in a Big way.

 

box office 0844 847 1775.  to  2 Nov

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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THE KING OF. HELL’S PALACE. Hampstead. NW3

Guest reviewer Ben Dowell wishes an important story was better told…

 

The sudden spread of hepatitis and HIV in the Henan province of China in the 1990s, after blood plasma was collected for a global pharmaceutical company,  is perhaps not widely known to Western audiences. Or not as widely known as it should be. Untold numbers of people were infected, and the courageous work of doctor Shuping Wang in unravelling  the causes of the spread deserve praise. Perhaps not, however  in the form of a 2 hr 35-minute play .

 

It’s certainly  cautionary, eye-opening tale. But how the sorry story is going to unfold becomes obvious within the first ten minutes of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s pay. An ambitious company, hungry to exploit the capitalist freedoms suddenly granted the Chinese people, is keen to harvest blood from the peasantry and  sell the plasma. The ordinary people, with memories of a famine, are only too keen to oblige. Medical researcher Yin Yin (Celeste Den) ,who is married to an unambitious health ministry official, senses something wrongand gradually uncovers the scandal – while facing the inevitable threats from the authorities. 

 

The story of corruption, greed, corner-cutting and the impact on the poor peasantry unfolds with depressing predictability.  Corporate scandal is a subject that can make for energetic and compelling theatre, as anyone who has seen Lucy Pebble’s Enron will testify. But unfortunately, this is very, very, on the nose.

 

Director Michael Boyd does his best with the material and his stage is a busy and interesting place thanks to Tom Piper’s vibrant design work. A moving walkway is a particularly good device, serving multiple functions – including a motorway, onto which peasants are tempted to throw themselves into the paths of  trucks in order to win compensation . And there is some interesting work with flowers – the peasantry’s staple way of earning money before the lure of big business cash brings their world crashing down. But there’s little he can do with the sometimes robotic dialogue , in a play brimful of good intentions but with virtually no artistry or dramatic tension.

 

Den puts in a game turn as Yin Yin, and Christopher Goh is very affecting as her desperate, torn husband. But overall you cannot help but think that this story would be served better by a feature-length documentary, real life testimony and a clear narrative.  This point was underscored on press night when Den welcomed on stage Shuping Wang herself – the doctor who in reality blew the whistle,  and who remains under pressure from the Chinese authorities to withdraw her story. Wang seemed uncomfortable with the adulation and attention. But her story,  factually told, would have been much more interesting and worthwhile.

hampsteadtheatre.com. To 12 October

 

2 meece rating

Rating. Two

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HEDDA TESMAN Minerva, Chichester

THIRTY YEARS LATER AND STILL FURIOUS: HEDDA’S BACK

 

     Last night, while Parliament spiralled into disorderly, resentful confusion and Mr Bercow dramatically put an end to himself after a lot of furious shouting because other people didn’t accept his “re-alli-tee!” I was having a parallel experience at Cordelia Lynn’s new updating of Ibsen’s most troubling heroine.  Who, significantly, the original author called by her maiden name Hedda Gabler:  perhaps to indicate that the most toxic influence in her life is her father the General, whose huge portrait dominates her married home and whose pistols she fiddles with in preparation for her final suicide.   This updating author  calls her by her married name:   poor affable dull academic George Tesman , who is here given almost too much likeability by Anthony Calf.     She,  on the other hand remains Ibsen’s sarcastic, prickly figure,  an intelligent  woman trapped in an 1890s patriarchal society.   The other men in her life , according to Ibsen , were the volatile Lovborg, another academic writing a “brilliant” paper despite being  drunk, brilliant and doomed ,  and  the patriarchally controlling  Judge Brack.    As everyone knows, it ends with a gunshot.  

 

       Cordelia Lynn,  for this version   has imagined that it’s thirty years later (but, a bit problematically, actually 115 years later, and therefore right now).  Her Hedda didn’t shoot herself in the head when pregnant but lived on, had the baby, called her Thea, didn’t like motherhood and spent decades feeling under-used, degraded by wifehood, intellectually frustrated and bored stiff of George’s enthusiastic research into “Domestic crafts in medieval Brabant”.    They’re back from two years at Harvard,  starting to unpack (the box with the pistols in first, obviously)  Thea is deep in therapy,  moved out to live with Aunt Julie,  then walked out of a brief marriage , and hasn’t spoken to herparents for five years .  But she bursts in,  mardy and cross, full of shrill demands (in the interval I looked at Parliament channel online and the echoes were remarkable).    She says they must invite Elijah (a version of Ibsen’s Lovborg) with whom she has been collaborating on a handwritten sociological treatise about “a short history of history and socio-cultural forces on the future”.    She also says that Elijah is off the booze, but we all know how long that’s likely to last. What with the moody twangling of a piano dimly seen overhead,  a sinister spotlight on old Gabler’s portrait,  and the temperament of Hedda herself hanging over the household like a rancid thundercloud.  

 

   Lynn keeps close to the shape of the original play,  but mercifully expands the tiny role of the maid Bertha to be a cheerful, normal agency cleaner who speaks merrily  to the un-mothered Thea about how much she enjoys being a Mum, with all the worry and laughs.  That’s touching.  So, in a way, are the scenes between Hedda and the daughter she resents; and there are some good, weird sparks between Hedda  and Irfan Shamji’s ’s louche Elijah while she prepares a celeriac and expresses her frustration to him.  

     

      She, of course, is the main reason to go and see this play:  for Hedda 2019 is Haydn Gwynne. And from the moment she descends the stairs – to be no help at all with the unpacking –  the woman is mesmerizing:  a tall pale streak of vivid resentment,   every turn of her head dangerous,  every smile faintly deranged even when her wit is sharpest.  She shines,  demanding our partisanship even in her most bonkers statements about self-destruction being “beautiful, brave, brilliant”  or her self-absorbed refusal to join her husband at his aunt’s deathbed.    “You know I can’t have anything to do with hospitals or death” she says haughtily,   milking away at her thirty-year-old experience of her father’s death. 

        She’s immensely watchable, and utterly awful, and it takes all Gwynne’s finesse, and the directorial devices of Holly Race Roughan,  to make us see deep enough into her pain to sympathize.  Well, a bit. . Even though she is living in 2019 , with a pussycat of a husband, no parental responsibilities and a cleaner to look after the house , so  any frustration she has is self-inflicted. 

 

       But more and more, there’s a sense that what you are seeing is some damn fine acting in a rather ho-hum play.    Jonathan Hyde’s Brack is suitably saturnine and finally satanic;   Natalie Simpson  as  the daughterThea is fascinating, and there is a bat-squeak suggestion – – due to their similar colouring and the intensity of their collaboration – that perhaps Elijah, not poor old George,  was actually her father. But that may not be intended.  What jars most is the sense that the stark despairs  of Ibsen’s heroines are not the despairs of our own times,  and his social  injustices are not ours.  Nor is it easy to accept the idea that the most terrible thing n the world is the loss of Lovborg-Elijah’s handwritten sociological treatise about “a short history of history and socio-cultural forces on the future” . It sounds  hell. 

       But Haydn Gwynne  in full snarling Hedda mode  is something to see.   It suited the evening.  As I staggered out to watch the news online,  I could only reflect that only she could make the resigning John Bercow look mild and resigned.   

www.cft.org.uk    to 28  September

rating three   3 Meece Rating

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A VERY EXPENSIVE POISON Old Vic, SE1

IN  PLAYFUL  ANGER,   A TALE FOR OUR TIMES

     

  On his deathbed in 2006  the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko asked to be photographed , to make public what had been done to him.  The pale grim image stunned us all, including the playwright Lucy Prebble.   He also made an uncompromising, dignified statement about his respect for Britain – he had achieved citizenship only a month before-  and his certainty that the poisoning with polonium was done at President Putin’s behest.   Police work at last pretty much proved this,     but governments of both colours  explicitly preferred not to risk relations with Russia, and declared a “PII – Public Interest Immunity” .  There was no public inquest or attempt to extradite the killers  Lugovoi and Kovtun,  or to remonstrate with Putin.

 

     But in their teeth,  his wife Marina Litvinenko and her lawyers  fought for a public inquiry,  and ten years later it reported damningly.   She worked with the playwright and stands – played with headlong, convincing sincerity by MyAnna Buring – at the centre of this  extraordinary evening.   At her side, as the story is told backwards from the first anguished arrival in a baffled A & E,  is an equally impressive Tom Brooke as the man himself:  gangling, earnest, decent,  a man of the FSB (formerly known as KGB)  who clashed with a corrupt system by detective work revealing it,   refused the “wet job”  of murdering his boss Boris Berezovsky,  and after arrest fled to London as an asylum seeker to spend six years briefing journalists and Russian contacts.    He couple believed in British justice ,  but it failed him after his death.   And as his wife says “To turn truth into justice we have to tell the story”. 

 

     The way it is told might raise eyebrows. There are addresses to the audience,  meta-theatre moments both sinister and clowning.    Reece Shearsmith’s arrogant, confident Putin swaggers out from below the double eagle and comments sardonically from the balcony. The two absurdly incompetent murderers  – who failed twice – bicker and get lost in the stalls .   Between the domestic stories of the LItvinenkos and  the doctors and nuclear scientists who decoded his fate we get lively ensemble interruptions. There are a couple of songs., one from Peter Polycarpou’s Bereszovsky  about the glory of London as a playground for oligarchs. There’s a weird brief interlude of giant TV puppets of Brezhnev and Yeltsin, a spoofily  patronizing Pushkin fairytale history of polonium in shadow-play,  and a nightclub interlude with a giant gold phallus.    But it is intelligently built and holds attention, and its truth is enhanced because every absurdity is real –  based on Luke Harding’s devastating book and on conversations with Mrs Litvinenko.    It is satisfying that Prebble,  who burst upon us with ENRON’s blend of absurdity, righteous fury, tight research and theatrical clowning,  should do it again with even more fury,   using theatre to entertain and appal  in a play she describes as “a risky, clumsy motherfucker” which might  “go down in flames” .

 

     It won’t.  The very absurdity of the killers  (not unlike the pair who took the Novichok to Salisbury on an absurd pretext about the cathedral,  and killed a second victim by throwing away the perfume) underlines the banal horror of Russian state murders .  Remember Georgi Markov and the umbrella;  have a thought for Bereszovsky’s “open verdict” looking like suicide.  There is nothing tasteless about anger  being playful, mocking, headshaking: Swift or Voltaire would love it.  And the human reality is held constantly before us  in the  shining loving determination of Buring’s Marina Litvinenko. 

 

     Her final address, reminding us of our political cowardice and idly greedy tolerance of crooked Russian money in our capital city  will bring theatres to their feet in admiration for her  and shame at our shabbiness.  It needed telling.  

box office   oldvictheatre.com    to 5 Oct.    It deserves to transfer.

principal partner: Royal Bank of Canada

rating  five 5 Meece Rating

     

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HANSARD Lyttelton, SE1

OLD TIMES,  OLD  SORROWS: BEFORE THE RAINBOW

 

With Parliament in uproar upriver ,  the NT hit a luckily apt moment to stage Simon Woods’ first play and promote it as a  “witty and devastating portrait of the governing class”.  Just the night to hurl  some fine invective at an audience fancying a torture-a-Tory session.  It’s  a tight 90-minute two hander about an Etonian Conservative MP in a profoundly unhappy marriage to a wife with passionately sarcastic socialist beliefs, both of them overshadowed by a tragedy they can’t speak – until the cathartic end when we find that the torture is hardly political at all. 

 

      It’s set in 1988: a weary decade in to the decaying rule of Margaret Thatcher, when the local government act, pandering to the scared old right,   brought in the hated Section 28 rule that a school “Shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” complete with  that insulting phrase about “pretended family relationships”.     For younger readers who may naively imagine  a binary political split on the question,  it’s worth mentioning that the thaw was coming:  only two years later the Conservative John Major invited Ian McKellen to discuss gay rights, and that while the repeal was completed under Blair it was Cameron who brought in equal marriage.  Time moved on.  Parties (well, not the DUP) move with it.

 

But it was a hot issue. This section 28 seems at first in he play to be just one of the triggers of the wife Diana’s fury.    Lindsay Duncan, frailly elegant, still in her dressing gown at 11am,  stalks around her drab-chic lonely Cotswold kitchen conveying from the start a disturbing sense of a sharp intelligence wasted, and wifely irritation at the years of “adoring looks, headscarves, twinsets and casual racism – best supporting wife”.    But subtly,  beneath it lies  a more personal  anger whose cause only gradually emerges.    Alex Jennings as MP Robin , a weary political careerist, seems at first just quackingly posh and amiably assured, with the air of a husband well used to mocking bickering – the pair often spark beautifully off one another as they run through all-too-familiar differences about diversity, victimhood, poverty,  and his suspicion of novels and ghastly liberal  theatregoers (we enjoyed that – “a narrow world of appalling people trying to understand themselves” instead of doing real jobs.  

 

     .  There are many laughs.  But Robin  is no dumb insensitive lump of right-wingery.  The lawn he rolled day after day to flatten out lumps is being demolished by foxes, and his flattened certainties  unearthed uncomfortably by human reality.    Vulnerabilities widen in both,  in the final furious revelation. We are prepared for it, with quite nice control (though the bickering goes on a bit too long) as we work out that the couple  had a son at one point, and that when something terrible happened  Robin’s mother “a cross between Nancy Mitford and Attilla the Hun” kept her hair appointment the next day.  She didn’t believe in all this emotional slop either, or teach her son about it . 

 

        Best not to reveal all,  but it is so finely acted and tightly directed by Simon Godwin that the perennial liberal -versus-Tory,  Toynbee ’n Tebbitt,  Punch ’n Judy conflict is not really the point at all.    Grief is, and stiff upper lips, and the legacy of British repression.  Oh, and  the fact that yes, there was a time not so long ago  when 75%of the nation polled said homosexuality was wrong , and a lot of otherwise  quite decent people dreaded encountering it.   Regrettable, wrong, cruel,   but true.

 

BOX OFFICE  nationaltheatre.org.uk       to  25  nov

 In cinemas 7 November    www.ntlive.com

Rating   four  4 Meece Rating

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