Monthly Archives: October 2019

LIGHT FALLS             Royal Exchange, Manchester

NORTHERN GUEST REVIEWER HELEN GASKELL TIRES OF THE RELENTLESS GRIT

 

A family of five, scattered across the North of England, are brought together by tragedy.  The play shows a picture of their lives as they find their way home.  Written by Simon Stephens, directed by Sarah Frankcom with music by Jarvis Cocker, it’s something one would really love to love: the brainchild of three Northern legends in the ultimate Northern theatre.  The writing is superb, the direction too, the music thoughtful and brave.

 

But it’s too Northern.  It’s far, far too Northern.  The grit-spreaders have truly been out in force, and it’s excruciating to swallow so very many clichés in one dose.  The lead protagonist Christine (Rebecca Manley) and her youngest daughter Ashe (Katie West) both have matching Maxine Peake haircuts.  There are drugs, drink, a single mother, a debt collector working for a bookie, down-to-earth swingers and an awkward, overweight,  cheating husband in an ill-fitting suit trying to pay for sex.  Rain was a pivotal plot point.  Everyone is startlingly poor and grindingly miserable.  We were only missing a whippet on a bit of string eating a pie, and perhaps Morrissey wailing plaintively in a corner to make the tableau complete.

 

    Stephens writes in the notes that he has spent the past 25 years in London, and that he felt relatively untouched by the financial crash of 2008.  He notes that “the more I travelled outside of London, the more the heft of that collapse seemed legible and the more that economic disparity seemed oddly brutal.”  He and Frankcom (then Artistic Director of the Royal Exchange, now Director of LAMDA) then went on a road trip across the North and met with people who “in some way echoed the lives from my life before I was born”.   Which, incidentally, has led to half the North being tarred with their wild and inaccurate brush strokes.  Cocker, too has left the North: he now splits his days between Paris and London.  It is difficult to see plays about poverty written by the privileged, and foolhardy to set decades-old experiences in the modern day.

 

  This review is hard to write, and it may be hard to read.  This is the kind of play which gets made into Radio 4 plays and gritty TV adaptations.  It was described to me as “a powerful allegory to the North”.  It absolutely is art, and there was some exceptional acting – Lloyd Hutchinson’s portrayal of middle-aged wannabe-swinger Bernard was spot on.  But the role he nailed was a stereotype.  Likewise Jamie Samuel, playing flight attendant Andy: he was kind, compassionate and convincing, but being asked to walk in a direction unworthy of his talent.  The writing cannot be faulted in its style and tone, but it clings to outdated stereotypes.

 

    Affluent southerners will love this play: this is how they like to see us.  Poor, grimy, suffering.  It makes them feel especially cosy in their little southern nests.  But the financial crash was not an exclusively Northern affliction: there is poverty everywhere, and affluence everywhere. Stephens might not have noticed the poverty in East London but that is not because it has been razed from the Greater London area altogether: it is because the impoverished people who used to live there have been forced out.

 

   Frankly,  you’d have to work spectacularly hard to find a bunch of people as resolutely downtrodden as those in this play – not just in the North, but practically anywhere in the world.  It needs to replace half its A Taste Of Honey with a hefty dose of Abigail’s Party.  Either that or focus less on the North and more on the universality of struggle.  We in the North are sick of being told we are cheerless and tough. As in the title of this play suggests, light falls.  So show it, please.

 

Rating: Two   2 meece rating

royalexchange.co.uk   to 16 November

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WHEN THE CROWS VISIT Kiln NW6

ARROGANCE, ANGER ,   INDIA’S  SHAME

 

  Hema’s is a house of women now.  The old grandmother is in bed below the tall screen doors ,  feeding  crows who move shadow-shapes behind them.   She is  chivvied  by a cheerful young maid Ragini; Hema herself tolerates her mother-in-law with gritted teeth.   Widowed, respectable and bruised,  the mistress of the house is papering over  the emotional cracks left by a brutal husband,  and living for her son Akshay.  He is supposedly making a success of his job in Mumbai,  designing violent computer games for the global market   We see,   in a brief and scornfully entertaining scene,  that he is an arrogant dilettante,   exasperating his colleagues at a bar table and prone to flashes of spoilt-child anger.    Which flares  at his exit when  a  bar girl offstage flips him the bird.   Bally Gill, every inch the peacock-splendid young alpha male,   is horrifyingly perfect in the role: strong-framed,  towering over the women, all feral beauty and untrammelled arrogance, a distillation of Indian machismo.

    

  But Akshay has come home. In a hurry, blustering  about being mistreated by his employers. And the papers report that a bar girl has been found gang-raped, horribly mutilated, broken-bottled.  “They practically vivisected her “ says the policeman brutally when he arrives to disconcert the family.  But hey, the cop himself is open to bribery,  and to maintaining  the middleclass respectability of the family.  For until one devastating scene the mother herself flies to defend her “sensitive, respectful” son, at least from the law. Dharker is exceptional:  subtly conflicted, plunging in and out of angry denial,   aware  from her years of brutal submission of the imbalance of the sexes but blanking out the awful truth about her son.  In one unforgettable midnight scene she joins him  the flicker of the X-box and picks up a controller  herself, just to see how it would be to have violent power…

    

    The culture looms over them all, a dark wing flickering behind. The old woman is  a fount of religious  folklore, telling tales of Rama and his subservient Sita,  and of a wicked king who bathed in the Ganges until all his sins and crimes burst out through his skin  as black crows and flew away, leaving him pure enough for his bride. 

        Anumpama Chandrasekhar has given us a violently disturbing play, and so it should be.  India bleeds at news of  rapes – too often unpunished , too often including violent mutilation as male anger rises against women who are educated, making their way,  insolently looking  them straight in the eye.  Our antihero finds this insupportable.    Diirector Indhu Rubasingham spares us none of the rage and horror of it  and  – this makes you wince –   of female complicity in the middle and oldest generations.   Hema has suffered, but her attempt not to lose face or  to admit enough of it makes her  more liberated sister scornfully say she should be grateful “to be a widow not a corpse”.

 

  There are intriguing echoes of Ibsen’s Ghosts, and indeed there are moments when it has a real Ibsen strength and rage, not least in its terrible conclusion.  In Ghosts  the widow of a sexually wicked man finds her son infected with the syphilis his father left him. But Osvald is an innocent,  doomed to madness and death, so there is additional shock in being asked to accept that Akshay too is a victim,  inheriting his father’s violence. In  a moment of self knowledge he seems to beg for a cure, and prays with his grandmother for redemption.     But as he wriggles clear of the law his arrogance returns, and in the denouement a horrid black tide of crow feathers drowns all innocence and hope.  .When Aryana Ramkhalawon’s cheeky maid laughs “all men think they are Rama these days”  we know that her modern confidence will do her no favours.   Brrr. 

 

box office   020 7328 1000      kilntheatre.com    to 30 nov 

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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VASSA Almeida, N1

GUEST CRITIC BEN DOWELL DOES NOT HAVE A GOOD NIGHT OUT

 

What a strange evening this is. Young director Tinuke Craig has taken Maxim Gorky’s 1911 play (there was a revision in 1935 but she has opted for the earlier text) and fashions a strangely free-floating family drama that seems part French farce, part panto, part absurdist horror. It’s certainly discomfiting, but not always in a  good way.

 

At its centre is Vassa herself (Siobhan Redmond), mother to an unruly brew of disaffected, dysfunctional children and  a hard-nosed patriarch who is dying upstairs. The business the two built together is also going to pot and Vassa will do anything (and you will see quite what that means) to protect her interests.   But what was a timely satire of the iniquities of capitalism in its day doesn’t really have much to say when Craig has so squarely decided to move it so out of time, place and a story of a generic family. It could be anywhere, which seems strange for a play aimed squarely at the horrors of late-stage capitalism before Russia’s glorious 1917 revolution.

 

So instead of saying much about our world,   it is just a clanging, unmodulated mix of registers. Mike Bartlett’s text gives its characters few asides about the stupidity of politicians (and also, on one instance, “fucking theatre” itself) to attract those knowing theatre chuckles we know so well.  But mainly this feels redolent of a panto star at the Hackney Empire getting a cheap laugh. The constant comings and goings and door slams (lots of doors in designer Fly Davis’ drab-looking, wood-heavy set) also brings an edge of farce to proceedings . Which feels aimlessly frustrating.

 

I suppose it could be said that tyrannical parents, shepherding the lives of feckless greedy children egged on by avaricious spouses,   can ring true regardless of its time and place. But it’s hard not to think that these themes are more cleverly and stylishly brought out in, say, HBO’s Succession. This just  seems unmodulated, relentless and, in the end, rather depressing. It’s as if Craig isn’t fully in command of her material.

 

And while there are some funny moments, with something grotesquely compelling about Redmond’s portrait of Vassa’s cruelty and curtness, you cannot help wondering what Samantha Bond, who was originally chosen for the part but was forced to back out due to injury, would have made of it.

to  23 Nov

rating  two 2 meece rating

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BOTTICELLI IN THE FIRE Hampstead, NW3

RENAISSANCE  RUTTING,   VENUS AND  VANITIES

 

Sandro Botticelli, he makes clear to us at the start, plans to tell his version. He’s Dickie Beau: skinny and swaggeringly queeny in black ripped jeans and cowlick. He has nipped back after 500 years  to explain why history shows this lushest, most erotic of Renaissance painters renouncing art as sinful , siding with the cold virtue of Savonarola the bigot and burner of sodomites, and consigning many of his own paintings and the gorgeous frivolities of luxury and literature to the infamous “Bonfire of the Vanities” in 1497.

 

  Jordan Tannahill’s  play, premiered here after Canada, is gloriously staged under  Blanche Macintyre’s direction.  James Cotterill’s  sets fluidly, with all Hampstead’s technical brilliance, create before us  the libertine life of the studio, the thudding corpses of the  plague beyond and the  flames that reek of human flesh.     But there are smartphones and jeans  as well as religious habits and cloth-of-gold;  the  powerful  Lorenzo de Medici plays squash with his painter protegé and his wife Clarice  has tantrums about her car keys.  That works fine,  because the  themes suit today nicely:  popular hysteria turning on the outsider, and the poor resenting of rich arty elites.  Not to mention the modern case of another religion  – 500 years younger than the  Christianity of Savonarola –  an Islamism whose extremists in the Middle East and Africa  burn and hang homosexuals just as keenly. 

  

 But back to 15c Florence. Tannahill’s  imagining  is that Botticelli  loves his brilliant assistant Leonardo da Vinci , and screws Medici’s wife while painting her as Venus,  which enrages the violent patron into condemning his lover to the flames in vengeance. So  the artist strikes a bargain with Savonarola that he’ll publicly repent the sin of art and the pursuit  pleasure.   Some lines faintly irritate by  seeming to affirm   (as is quite often the case in such plays) to assume that sole ownership of victimhood and  creativity belongs to gay men of heroic promiscuity.   But Beau’s tremendous performance – moving from arrogance to agony – holds you captive. So do Sirine Saba’s  irresistible Clarice/Venus and the rest.   There’s a gripping sense of being trapped in an awful game with changing rules and threats: on one side a vicious Medici with a knife at your groin and dungeon- power, on the other a mob which wants to burn you.  When Botticelli  and his friends realise the literal use of the word faggot –  bundles of kindling – their  silence chars your spirit. 

There are some marvellous lines: when Clarice wonders if the picture will be too “debauched” our hero chirps indignantly  “Clarice I’m Botticelli, debauched is what I do. If your husband wanted you in a nun’s habit he’d have commissioned Fra Filippo!”

 

It briefly  goes a bit Ru Paul before the interval, with a  burlesque Venus and a chorus in gold lame booty-shorts  filling in while – in real panic –  the painter and his assistant work all night in their underpants to paint veiling hair over Clarice’s genitals before her husband sees the canvas.  But then the  violent reality is  intensified   – Adetowama Edun’s Medici is electrically nasty,  and, later his victim  is cradled by a forgiving mother  like a Pieta (the staging uses lovely Renaissance tableau echoes). There is catharsis as he spectacularly defaces his masterpiece before our eyes, a fierce fire,  and a bland credible chill in the deal with Savonarola.

 

     Obviously and explicitly, with the fourth wall kicked down again   we’re informed it has to end  the way ghost Botticelli wants, so “f*** the historians in the audience”.Da Vinci doesn’t turning his back and move on and up. . Rather,  Epicurean and unafraid,  the men erotically share a peanut butter sandwich.  What’s the point of history if you can’t improve it, eh?

www.hampsteadtheatre.com. To 23 Nov

Rating. Four.  4 Meece Rating

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​LUNGS.    Old vic, SE1​​​

​​IT TAKES TWO​​…​

 

Here’s  a sharp eyed little gem about coupledom and the wary, fretful road towards parenthood in an age of easy contraception and illimitable expectations. It is often  snortingly funny (the young, I suspect, laughing at themselves and their mates, my generation rolling our eyes at their ability to overthink the most basic elements of life and anxious conviction that in pleasing themselves they are ‘good people’).  It’s by Duncan Macmillan , whose plays both showcase actors and demand of them unusual extremes of stamina and truthfulness. So Matthew Warchus does well to recruit, for this 90 minute non-stop two-hander, a duo who do well to shake off their slower screen personae from Netflix.​​​

 

For  now Claire Foy and Matt Smith are no longer dutiful HM and surly Duke from The Crown but a young, scruffy, barely fledged modern couple – he a gig musician with a record shop job, she doing a PhD and unwilling to take paid work. Both feel a bit stale in their Ikea and clubbing life, and go through  angsts about the environment and   birthstrikey worries about whether to have a baby which will emit carbon dioxide all its life. ​   ​​​

 

Their conversation moves elegantly across a floor of jagged solar panels.  With particularly clever physicality and tone we see them over many months and then years in an Ikea queue, homes, a car, bed, a park, hospital: it’s always clear, always flowing from one intensity or absurdity to the next.  There is a plot, an ordinary romcom in some ways but always sharply  edged with the particular absurdities of their attitudes, confusions and fraught but necessary connection.  ​​​​

 

Often Foy’s woman is almost unbearably irritating, witteringly thinking aloud, demanding,  agonizedly self- absorbed while Smith often stands there like a bewildered Easter Island Statue . But then we find we are on her side against his unregenerate blokeishness. Then again, we feel for him in his bewilderment , admiring his ability to grow up and wondering how on earth any man and woman ever do get on together in the age of offence and self-analysis.​​​

 

It could be just a nimble dissection of a generation: yet Macmillan trawls wider, as ever, and the last part sees them within a skilful minute or two, becoming everycouple. Everyfamily. And it moves the heart. Which, given how much we have been laughing,  is a clear win. ​​​

 

​Oldvictheatre.com.  To 29 Oct

​Rating. Four   4 Meece Rating

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A MUSEUM IN BAGHDAD Swan, Stratford upon Avon

TWO CURATORS,  ACROSS EIGHTY YEARS

 

  The little Swan , a jewel-box of a theatre, often sees the new plays the RSC does best: immaculate technique and careful clarity elucidating complex and unfamiliar themes.   From nuclear research to prehistoric China , Rome and medieval or Tudor political histories,  intricate stories have leapt into life here.    This, infuriatingly, is not such a moment.

     

 It should be, for the topic of Hannah Khalil’s play is arresting.   It takes two ages in parallel:  in 1926  the archaeologist-explorer and nation- builder  Gertrude Bell is passionately founding a museum after the Great Powers drew their arrogant ruler-straight lines across the Middle East  to create nations and “mandates”  out of Ottoman Mesopotamia.  Then in 2006, after the Iraq wars, with American troops still there, we see the modern attempt under a new curator – Ghalia, again a woman – to  rebuild it after the years it became ‘Saddams gift shop’ inaccessible to the public, and many antiquities of ancient Mesopotamia had fallen to looting and sectarian destruction .

   

  The  subject and intention are good, the questions worth asking.   What are museums for?   Do people need them to buoy up nationhood, community and pride?  Do colonial or interventionary powers have any right to try and tell hungry nations how to feel anyway?   The  performances  are fine – especially Emma Fielding as Bell and her quiet dignified  aide Salim (Zed Josef) , and  Rendah Heywood’s wearily anxious modern curator, a returning Iraqi educated in the West .  All do their best with the repetitiveness and the infuriatingly threadbare drawing of relationships.  Two characters,  Abu Zaman and  Nasiya,  are intended entirely as symbols, timelessly straddling time and space, and sometimes leading incantatory ensemble movements in Arabic and English. These,  according to the script, should “have the effect of simultaneous translation”,  but in fact, unless you are an Arabic speaker,  are as incomprehensible as cuneiform itself.

     

    The atmospherics in those chants and movement,   the centrality of a rather marvellous ancient crown and a final cascade of the sands of time over the whole doomed lot, are elegantly RSC.  And there is nothing wrong with having two periods onstage at once: sometimes, not often enough,  parallels and ironies are well pointed up as the two curators battle with time, local problems and – in Bell’s period – with the brisk tweedy view of the English archaeologist Woolley . He is trying to borrow a statue for the British Museum and presciently barks as Bell struggles to fill the shelves    “I predict it’ll be all back in the BM by teatime, when civil war erupts again and they go back to their tribes”.

  Advance study of the background, the text, the period and the good programme would help,  but for a lay audience it feels,  despite Eric Whyman’s direction,  like a mess.  The first half caused some heads to nod visibly, and  the conversations between the teams, for all the cast’s high competence, felt as repetitive and frustrating as the job itself must have been .

      Some light relief is provided, though rather too often,   by Debbie Korley  as  a honky American soldier with a flak- jacket and extreme Tennessee twang, forever sweeping the floor  (did they?). She adds to the sense of misandry,  perhaps to echo Bell’s exasperation at warmongering males,   with a nasty tale about strangling a fellow-GI’s pet stray dog to because he pinched her bum.

rsc.org.uk    to  23 May

rating three   

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AN INSPECTOR CALLS Touring

INSPECTOR GOOLE,  BACK  BACK ON THE ROAD 

 

Below,  edited, is my original London review of this remarkable production.  This new tour deserves to be marked, though:   regarding the tour cast, Liam Brennan reprises Goole, splendidly, and notably elsewhere is Chloe Orrock as a particularly strong Sheila Birling and Alasdair Buchan an impressive Gerald.  Its strength is undimmed: its social message useful, and now in the age of MeToo the echoes of recent assaults and contempts for young women hit even harder.   And at the end of the first week of the tour,  the extraordinary set behaved exactly as it should at the Oxford Playhouse. Which is a triumph in itself.  You’ll see why when you watch it..

   Go catch… 

OLDER REVIEW EDITED:

     Over 25 years on from its first outing at the National,  Stephen Daldry’s  interpretation of the old JB Priestley standard –  not least due to Ian MacNeil’s design – is one of the most powerful stage metaphors ever.    The smug Birling family are both elevated and nicely cramped – the physical reflecting the mental – in a bright-lit  dolls-house perched above a misty, derelict city and its wandering urchins.   The interrogation and revelations that rock them – and literally bring their house down –  are staged like a ‘40s  air raid, even down to the smoky, climactic moment when members collapse amid wreckage and are swathed in brown blankets by silent citizens..   Yet the house  rises and brightens again in smugness, for a moment.     

 

    There was some astonishment in 1992 that Stephen Daldry, edgy new director,  not only chose Priestley’s morality play but stripped away the fusty Edwardiana which had distanced its capitalist arrogance from our own.  But it blew us away then, and does it again now, its force undimmed.  Daldry, as we know from everything from Billy Elliott to Netflix’s The Crown,  is at his best dealing with dramatic social and moral themes.  And that this production  is back to make a new generation gasp is splendid:  I watched a matinee alongside at least two enormous school parties,  blazers and hijabs all around me,  swaggering or giggling in with squawks about “No interval? Whassat? Miss!”. 

 

  But its hundred minutes saw them quiet, breathingly absorbed and,  more than once,  gasping.  Not bad for a 1912 play about a smug Edwardian family party visited by the artfully titled  “Inspector Goole”,  who gradually makes them all realize that each in turn – father, mother, son, daughter and her fiancé, has been – or may have been – complicit in driving a young woman to a horrible suicide.      Liam Brennan is an unusually emphatic Goole (well, unusually for me as I love the Alistair Sim film, but it works)

 

 Daldry and MacNeil’s sociali-justice metaphor of the rich house  precariously aloft over a changing, struggling city could hardly be more fit for now:  the arrogant, petulant, grasping rich literally besieged  by the reality of wider society and refusing the lessons of justice.   “If we will not learn that lesson” says Goole, to the audience,  “we will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish”.  Behind him, in the cathartic moment,   Mrs Birling is trying to polish her silverware,  her husband blustering,  only the younger spirits shaken into understanding the responsibility, long denied by old Birling,  for “all having to look after each other like bees in a hive”.  

  

rating five5 Meece Rating

TOURING to 23 May    Newcastle next      

  https://www.aninspectorcalls.com/tour-dates   Touring Mouse wide

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