Monthly Archives: September 2019

THE WATSONS. Menier SE1

15 CHARACTERS OBJECTING TO  AN AUTHOR..

 

The Jane Austen industry never flags, in tribute or in parody.  You can barely throw a bonnet without hitting an  Austentatious improv,  popcorn movie, stripped- down Northanger Abbey staged on scaffolding,  or some updated  BridgetJonesery,  Right now we have two writers finishing incomplete fragments, both accepting that it won’t be quite what Jane woulda done, but hey….  Thus Andrew Davies  sexes up Sanditon for ITV with incest , brothels and Theo James leaping on coaches,  and up from Chichester, adapted a bit,  here’s Laura Wade taking on the earlier  Watsons. 

     

We begin in Jane’s world and words, as  Emma (a charmingly spirited Grace Molony) has been dumped by her rich aunt to live in reduced circumstances with an ailing father and two sisters. All of whom must marry or be destitute (or governesses or teachers, generally in Austen considered almost as bad).

 

     It gets going with deft economy under Samuel West’s direction, as Ben Stones’ panelled set slides and opens to establish  a host of locals, militia, toffs and possible husbands. There’s a beautiful dance-with-dialogue including a ten year old  in tailcoat, very authentic-Austen. But 30 minutes in, as the original author stops, Emma is about to accept the dull Lord – as indeed she would have without Aunt Jane to stop her. And  it goes all meta and Pirandello:  author (played by Louise Ford) dashes in from 21c literary reality  and stops her , because Austen heroines must make love-matches.  It baffles Emma, and provokes horror in her sisters who feel that turning down a “not particularly deformed” Lord with a pineapple hothouse is crazy.  

     From here on it’s a battle of wills between the modern author and the characters, who are appalled at being told they aren’t real and  stage a revolution. There are some fabulous laughs: the horror of Jane Booker’s Lady Osborne at the author’s  plastic chair and immodest jeans, the glee of the child discovering her iPhone,  and his poignant horror at the fate of having to be ten forever.  Wade is at her best sending herself up, and when the entire cast of characters start whingeing like am-dram actors (“I don’t seem to be in it much””My character wouldn’t do that”etc) .  

   It also opens up some lovely ironies about the artificiality of all fictional pattern-making, as author-Laura protests that it was a “Feminist Act” of Austen’s to make her characters marry for love, because in her society marriage was the only route to female independence.  The characters hurl arguments from Hobbes and Rousseau, and express  natural  indignation at having a path laid down at all.  

Pleasing  chaos and insubordination keep it moving, and there’s even a brief Napoleonic war, an erotic speech to scare the pants off even Andrew Davies, and a fine moment of glory for Nanny (Sally Bankes) as  the only working-class character.  

      But O, the temptation of writerly  self-pity and self importance!  One can see why, but the pace slows terribly  as “Laura”loses control and sobs at her lot while the rebel characters gather round, leaderless.  Her exhilarating final moral – that unfinishedness is freedom and  a myriad possibilities – is fine, But I (and the novelist pal at my side) both winced  at her injunction to the little boy “never be ashamed to call yourself an artist”.  No, no,no…just don’t..

       But it  was fun. 

Box office menierchocolatefactory.com.  To 17 Nov

Rating four4 Meece Rating

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BIRTHDAYS PAST, BIRTHDAYS PRESENT            Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

80 NOT OUT,  THE SAGE OF SCARBOROUGH  

  

Not everything would send me via  divers and standing-room trains from Stratford to Scarborough.  But this is Alan Ayckbourn’s 83rd play, marking his 80th birthday and 60th anniversary as a playwright.   And though it  may  (should!) last and travel like his other best ones,  I needed to see it on his home turf: the round SJT, the  Circus-Maximus where for decades he has thrown Middle England into battle with the wild beats of its nature.   On a wet Friday a sudden rainbow met me as I stumbled from the station.  Old Sir-Alan has earned it again with this :  a play very English, very Yorkshire,  streaks of compassionate melancholy under the sparkle of sparkles of hilarity as once again he shakes his head, not unaffectionately, at the puzzle of men and women. 

 

  He himself directs :  its a four-hander family tale told backwards through time (like Betrayal, or Merrily We Roll Along).  First meet Mickey, a graceless grump marking 80 with a fine dry wit,  tended by Meg with her tea-tray.  The son Adrian and his latest girlfriend Grace are coming to birthday tea.   Deft as ever, Ayckbourn reveals the family’s shape:  Adrian is the slowcoach, his siblings higher-flying and often abroad;  he had a failed marriage to a divorcee with children, and always in the background was once Uncle Hal, the black sheep.  This constantly funny opener is enlivened by Mickey’s determination to warn the mousy, churchy Grace that his son is famously sexually voracious,   what women of a past age hushedly called a “satyr” (“Once he gets you into bed, you do well to brace yourself!”).     This reputation feels  blinkingly unlikely as the great smiling lunk himself shambles in, all goodwill and hope for the 42-year-old he met at a church social.  What can Mickey mean? Is he really a sexual Superman? We shall learn. 

 

        For as the stagehands elegantly reposition and unfold the furnishings in the arena (Kevin Jenkins’s ingenious design is part of the pleasure)   the next birthday,  15 years earlier,  is his wife’s 60th, when she has become a bottle-blonde in mumsily pink glamour , brawling over the offstage buffet.  While Adrian and his still-married  wife with touching awkwardness  reveal how far from a satyr he is.  Aha: we are beginning to understand that actually, this is a play about the hardness of being a shy good man in a world of baffling women.  Jamie Baughan’s performance is immaculate in its underachieving sweetness, and later he’ll break your heart even more. For it is his lonely thirtieth birthday next,  and another clue to Mickey’s legend;  finally it is his brash elder sister’s 18th,  setting him at 17 on his life’s trail of kindly, modest humiliation.

     

    Baughan holds the play’s real heart,  and Russell Dixon and Jemma Churchill neatly grow younger over five decades as the parents. But the glorious set-pieces come  from the astonishing Naomi Petersen as four of the women in Adrian’s life:  thwartedly churchy Grace,  a disastrously depressed and self-absorbed wife Faith, a shy schoolgirl of long ago. And,  most gloriously of all,  a mouthy prostitute donated, on Adrian’s birthday  by his Uncle Hal .   For reasons not fit to disclose before you hurry up there with a ticket,  a major highspot is her hen impression – chicken-in-a-basque if you like.  

 

  Yet always underneath it beats Ayckbourn’s sorrowful, understanding heart, showing us that comedy is just tragedy on its way to happening.   Happy Birthday, Sir Alan!

box office sjt.uk.com    to 5 October

rating  Five 5 Meece Rating

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KING JOHN Swan, Stratford upon Avon

KING JOHN WAS NOT A GOOD MAN…

 

  Maybe we should stick to AA Milne’s version?

 “King John was not a good man

He had his little ways

  And sometimes no one spoke to him

For days and days and days…”

     There’s something about this account of “England’s worst King”,  one of Shakespeare’s least-known plays, which causes directors to go “let’s ZHOOSH it up for the Youth!!”.  Newish directors, that is: that old fox Trevor Nunn served it up with traditional fleur-de-lys and trumpets at the Kingston Rose a while ago, and ironically I found myself more engaged:  not even too bothered about the missing bits and disputed authorship.  Its cores –  political weakness, familial rifts and self-interest showed up better.  

 

  But it attracts gimmickists.  Last time it was done here by the RSC  it was like a hen party designed by  Timmy-Mallet, with balloons, harlequin tights and a vital    character dropped.   Now once again the baton  goes to a new director – Eleanor Rhode from Hightide – who appears enamoured of  mid-20c soap and movies,  sartorially and tonally (Max Johns designs, albeit with a huge tapestry backdrop conflating all periods, which is rather fine. ).  It seems to say hey, forget the tragedy-plantagenetty stuff,  it’s just a dysfunctional family comedy!  A royal Dynasty, innit, what’s not to like?  Queen Eleanor is basically Joan Collins…

 

       It could work, and  in the shorter, darker, more medieval part after the interval it begins to, with the actors  at last allowed to stop yelling and clowning (good work from Charlotte Randle as Lady Constance in her grief,  Rosie Sheehy as King John collapsing into hysteria and blaming Hubert,  Tom McCall as Hubert the failed murderer himself,  and Michael Abubakar as a sprightly Bastard).     The first half, though,  is a gruelling 90 minutes which could wear you down a bit .  Though there is quite an entertaining food-fight at the wedding of the Dauphin and Blanche, and the movement and fight directors (two of the latter!)  deserve a lot of  credit.   Especially for the bit when King Philip gets a floury bap stuck on the point of his crown.   And it is quite witty (and technically clever) that in the course of that shenanigan the JUST MARRIED balloons are twisted into JUST DIE.   

   

      But all in all,  the shouty carelessness with the verse (some of the loveliest lines of Shakespeare are in here) and the desperate determination to be fun  made it less than gripping until its last more solemn moments.  But look, I’m not hostile:  it’s 2019,  the RSC has lots of crap telly to compete against,  so I’ve no  objection to Cardinal Pandulph being depicted as a pouting, mincing  Elsie Tanner from Coronation Street,  nor to the homages to Bunuel and the Sopranos.  And yes, on press night anyway lots of people did often laugh.   And young Ethan Phillips was very good indeed as the doomed child Arthur,  indeed displaying a finer sense of language than some of the adults.  

   

    Maybe I’m just an old misery.   It gets one mouse more than the last RSC King John did.  And as it’s never a set book, extreme larkiness doesn’t confuse the poor GCSE kids the way a gimmicky Macbeth would.   But it would be grand if, as the new decade begins, the RSC  had a think about doing the play another way.  

 

Box office: 01789 403493.   rsc.org.uk   in rep   to  20 march and in cinemas on 29 APril next year

rating three 3 Meece Rating

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TWO LADIES Bridge, SE1

GLOBAL AND GENDER POLITICS IN  PERFECT MINIATURE

  

  A glass conference-centre in the host nation France;  a visiting US President avid for airstrikes after a terrorist outrage , demanding EU backing. The talks are on,  but we are with the two  first-ladies  in lockdown in a side room. Demonstrators have soaked the US President’s glamorous lady with animal blood, shocking against her chic white suit.  Aides bustle about, keen to spin the  change of clothes into something patriotically symbolic.   But mostly it is duel or duet between the two leads: a fine-drawn cool Zoe Wanamaker  and a brilliant slow reveal by an utterly fascinating, masterfully restrained Zrinka Cvitesic.  

        

In a tight 90 minutes  Nancy Harris’ new play  moves from a sharp,  occasionally funny observation of this wifely condition into a meditation on politics both gender and global: under Nicholas Hytner’s tight directorial hand it rises to a chilling edge and neat final twist :   a Tardis of a play, bigger than its size.    Harris fictionalizes the first ladies well within current reality –   Wanamaker’s  Helen 24 years her French husband’s senior and once his teacher, but British-born and a former  liberal journalist and  speechwriter to her spouse  although “little men with pencils” strike out her best lines. She is irritable at exclusion from the real power-game and the coming futility of a “Women’s Forum” dinner.   

 

         The US President’s younger lady  (Cvitescic)  is Sophia:  East European, every inch a former model and soft-porn actress with her own steely dignity.  Brilliantly telling is her calm peasant acceptance when she strips to her petticoat to clean herself up with a bucket and soap before shrugging on a clean frock .  And, early on and startlingly ,  reveals that the perfume in her handbag is actually poison, for final “control” if she is kidnapped.  It was from “friends”. Not the CIA.  She comes of a harsher culture.   This is one of the first of many moments when she rattles the composure of the sophisticated  Helen, whose handbag has never held anything more practical than an argumentative book. Probably by a Guardian columnist. 

            The beauty of the women’s interaction lies in how this contrast widens into  a meditation on the two Europes.   On a personal level neither has a perfect marriage. One’s a trophy  wife,  the other aware of her younger husband’s infidelity but thinking she holds him by the intellect.   But though both feel thwarted by patriarchy, on one side there is smug educated Western liberalism,  and on the other a fierce Balkan practicality,. When Sophia flatly observes that men will always be able to humiliate women because they have the power,  Helen splutters “not any more!”. Cvitesic’s eyes roll up.

      For the US wife is  clear-eyed,  personally toughened by the brutality of rapist wars, knows she is seen as “the wrong sort of European” and an upstart tart.  Yet as it turns out , politically she  burns with a headlong Antigone spirit  more powerful than the appalled Helen can share.   A third grace-note of female exasperation comes when Lorna Brown’s vigorous Sandy, the US aide,   is patronized by Helen and saltily observes that as a single mother with kids to raise she objects to being  “talked down to by rich-ass liberal white women…while I save the asses of people with a lot more money and power who never say thanks” .  Ouch.  Perfect. 

 

Box office: 0843-208 1846.   to 26 October

rating  five 5 Meece Rating  

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A TASTE OF HONEY Lowry, Salford and touring

SIXTY YEARS OR ONE MILE AWAY  –  Greater-Manchester guest critic HELEN GASKELL REVELS IN GRIT AND SKILL 

 

Ah, to watch a classic play in the place it was written.  Working class Salford girl Shelagh Delaney famously wrote A Taste of Honey at 19, after being disappointed on  a trip to see Terence Rattigan’s Variation on a Theme.  She reckoned she could do better: of course she was right, and a classic was born.

Recap, for those not familiar with this  northern classic. It is the late 1950s, and 15 year old Jo (Gemma Dobson)  lives in squalor with her vampy, sex-kitten mother Helen (Jodie Prenger).  After Helen swans off to marry a drunken, violent younger man (Tom Varey) Jo is left to fend for herself.  She falls in love with a black sailor named Jimmie, played with perfection in this instance by Durone Stokes.  After he too leaves her in the lurch, she finally catches a break and falls in with her gay friend Geoffrey (Stuart Thompson) – until everything starts falling apart.

Context is key. It is too easy to forget that when it was written, mixed race relationships were extremely taboo and homosexual relationships illegal.  Much of the play hinges on this, and younger audience members might be forgiven for finding some plot points slightly confusing.  For example, Geoffrey might still face persecution for being gay today, but unlikely to find himself homeless when still able to pay his rent.

The production does not attempt to draw clumsy parallels or score political points.  It is unashamedly a period piece.  But its themes are not irrelevant to our current situation: in fact, the poverty  -well depicted in the set  – of the 50s flat Jo and Helen live in would certainly be recognisable to many not a mile away from the Lowry today.  Jo can, at least, turn on her gas stove, and Geoffrey can afford to buy a packet of then-exotic pasta without resorting to a visit to a food bank.   We are deep in I, Daniel Blake territory.

  The National Theatre does not disappoint: the production is absolutely superb, with some of the cleverest staging imaginable. i=It  benefits from the genius incorporation of a live band scattered across the stage, and light smoke giving a wonderfully dingy feel to the already-dirty set. Hildegard Bechtler, set and costume designer, has done an impeccable job of capturing poverty and squalor;  Paul Anderson’s lighting design is highly commended: he is not afraid to let in the dark.   Finally, the team have worked well together: barely noticeable visual tweaks and stolen moments between scenes say as much as the actors themselves.  A dirty tablecloth is replaced with a clean one; a silent dance is glimpsed between absent Jimmie and besotted Jo; a bare lightbulb gets a shade.  This  baked-in aura of northern grit takes weight off the actors, and Delaney’s  natural wit shines through.  Too often British plays of this era are marred by hammy, OTT acting, but not here.  Nearly every performance is outstanding.  It is frankly marvellous to see a gay man portrayed without camp, a lothario as a romantic, and domestic violence no less terrifying due to its subtlety.  

And the singing – gosh, the singing.  Not a croak or a bum note in evidence – nothing at all to distract from the wonderful use of contemporaneous music, which is seamlessly blended into the production. Itwould be perfection, if it were not for the fact that it is hard to suspend disbelief far enough to see a 28 year old woman play a 16 year old.  Dobson is a superb actress, but there are others who could successfully assist an audience in clambering over that mental hurdle.  Do not let that put you off.

 

 

box office   http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/a-taste-of-honey-uk-tour . On tour until 16th November.

Rating: Four   4 Meece Rating

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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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