Monthly Archives: September 2021

BLITHE SPIRIT Harold Pinter Theatre SW1

AN ARCATI MORE THAN MEDIUM

I once took a student nephew to this Coward masterpiece, and the thrill for me was that he didn’t know there was a g—–. Until there was. Therefore for a rising generation, with aunts who wisely buy them tickets, I shall unfashionably eschew spoilers, even if the publicity lets one out.  

    .  In any case, for me this time the thrill was different, and unexpected.  It was the TV-star casting of Jennifer Saunders as the dotty village psychic Madame Arcati. I admit I had not been expecting much: there have been generations of Arcatis since 1941, since from Margaret Rutherford onward ageing comediennes of distinction have been queuing up for the role, longing to drape themselves in mad scarves and beads,  pedal up the hill to the suave Charles Condomine’s dinner party seance on a trusty bike (“down with your head and up with your heart and you’re over the top in a flash!”), and then in a series of show- stopping tirades lecture the company on the afterlife and enact  a dramatic trance.  I have seen about six over the years, and didn’t expect to enjoy Saunders: loved ab-fab, but expected exaggerated fan-friendly mugging and too much recognizability. 

   I was wrong.  In Richard Eyre’s briskly directed production she stands out, even alongside Geoffrey Streatfeild’s expertly Coward-y Charles, Lisa Dillon’s brisk (and at times, later, even touching) Ruth, and Madeleine Mantock as a rather wonderfully nimble, dancing, writhing, coolly-smoking sex bomb Elvira.  Saunders’ Arcati is draggled but not cartoonish:  donnishly dishevelled, earnestly scholarly rather than exaggeratedly nuts. Legs akimbo, whether bossing the company into awkward table turning formation, wiping her crystal ball on her capacious bosom or dancing about speaking in tongues, she utterly inhabits and believes in the part.   No Edina Monsoon surfaces even for a moment.  No scarves either, just a paisley robe and hat I rather fancy myself.

      So, pleasure: it’s not new to most of us, this “Improbable Farce” Coward knocked together in six days by the seaside: we oldies know all too well its dryly regretful observation of  the farce that is passion, the dangers of memory  and the inevitability of matrimonial irritability.  We enjoy the   magnificent galleried library – one of those stage sets the audience longs to move into, almost  property-porn. We enjoy the elegant sparring, whether Private-Lives style with Charles and Elvira or all too recognisable in his spats with Ruth. There are dim lights and eerie blue-white on platinum effects, and one total blackout. And  – let me say this without an iota of a spoiler – director Eyre gives full rein to the final scenes of Rose Wardlaw as the housemaid. Full rein. Hurrah. Take your nieces and nephews. 

Box office http://www.atgtickets.com   To 9 November

Rating four

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THE LODGER Coronet, W11

A SHAGGY-DOG TALE IN CRUMBLING SPLENDOUR

    

  Sometimes the building upstages the play. I had not explored the late-Victorian, half-restored  glory of the Coronet before,  and my first thought was that it may be impossible for any show to lure people out of its magnificent subterranean bar.   But duty to the Art must be done,  Robert Holman is a veteran writer, it’s his newest play,  and a great cast: would go a long way to see Sylvestra Le Touzel and indeed young Matthew Tennyson.

      But it’s a rum one, this.   As at the Hampstead last week we are dealing with sisters whose mother has just died, leaving a residue of old female resentments. Esther (Penny Downie) lives in Little Venice with Tennyson’s  Jude , a half-companionable half-taciturn youth, who is probably a drug dealer . She rescued him like a stray cat when he was twelve. Down from Harrogate in her old car comes sister Dolly, Le Touzel .   Nicely costumed in no- nonsense Northern mumswear, she takes this moment to announce she has left Derek for good, the philandering beast.  She is suspicious of Jude,  yet jealous of Esther for this surrogate son (“I would have loved to wash boys’  clothes” she said, in a standout line of childless sadness).   

         But the pace is slowish, uneasy,  some of the dialogue only just ‘off” , so it feels like a cheese-dream after reading too much Alan Bennett.   Geraldine Alexander’s rather static direction in that long first scene had Dolly’s back to me for longer than is comfortable.  Things improve as we discover  this pair to be more entertainingly dysfunctional than they seem, since Esther admits to sex under a cherry tree with the groom on the eve of her sister’s wedding (Dolly’s response is that she plans to cut the tree down). Esther is slapped, forcing Jude to throw a glass of water over them, catfight-style. 

          After hasty stage rearrangement and some pebbles they all go together to Dungeness, though where more sisterly discord occurs with an even sharper revelation.  Then Jude (on whom it is impossible to get a handle)  reveals from behind a swimming towel that he too has a dark secret, viz. that he has had a play put on at the Royal Court.  It’s  about a boy who goes to Norway to track down his rock star grandfather…

           Well, no more spoilering,  let’s just say that I had an awful suspicion that Act 2 would be in Norway, so passed the interval in a confused wander round the foyer, enjoying how Coronet’s ramps up its artful attitude of disconnected Victorian strangeness with a creepy candlelit maiden-auntly decor of old chair backs,  obsolete typewriter and hatstand with a mirror into which one might look and suddenly see someone quite different , betraying a dark secret about something bad that happened in Harrogate in 1955.   See?  this theatre is becoming part of the story, simply because the story is less like a gripping play than like a rather baggy novel. 

         Norway was indeed there after the interval, complete with the lovely Iniki Mariano in a sari, with more astonishing revelations. And just as you are wondering what the hell happened to the two senior ladies,  they are back,  reconciled, and the three principals end up by planting an oak tree  onstage with admirably thorough trowelling , a full new sack of compost and many reflections in life, confidence, hope , love, and the point if any of the Christian religion. 

          It’s deftly performed,  not unperceptive,  but hard to accept as drama.  Stretching in too many temporal, geographical and thematic directions at once,  its elastic simply lacks twang.    

box office thecoronettheatre.com   to 9 oct

rating three  

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INDECENT Menier, SE1

AN EPIC OF PASSION AND PERFORMANCE

        Here is life, history,  theatrical passion, great migrations and  lyrical romance in the rain.  Here’s anger and humour and love and despair , jokes and vigour and a slap in the eye to prudery and prejudice , and many  messages from the 20th century to the 21st.  Rather than return cautiously with a safe old feelgood favourite the Menier’s artistic director David Babani  has taken  –  deep breath –  a new American-Jewish Broadway play about a 1923 scandal about a lesbian play in Yiddish from 1907, and its  1940’s aftermath in a doomed attic in the Lodz ghetto.   Could have been a tough sell, though the playwright Paula Vogel was a 1998 Pulitzer winner  and with  director-collaborator Rebecca Taichman it won a Tony just before the pandemic.   

        You can see why, and why it will hit the Oliviers lists. It’s a delight, seething  with life and feeling. A  silent line of eight unsmiling, muffled, mittel-European figures sits still as statues as we enter then rises, stretches, ash  around them dispersing as the fiddler strikes up and modest old Lemmi (Finbar Lynch) apologetically explains that he is just a stage manager, but has a story to tell, which the actors will help him to do. .  They are dancing by now,  accordion and clarinet amplifying the plaintive klezmer fiddle, and the tale begins.  It tells how  a play in Yiddish, God of Vengeance (Got fun Nekome) ran from St Petersburg to Berlin to Constantinople to New York, and back to Poland in the Holocaust when its author, Sholem Asch, forbade its performance forever. .  Or until Paula Vogel, a student tentatively finding her gay identity in 1974,  found it in a university library and was enthralled.  Across the decades it spoke to her understanding of love: a lyrical, passionate, transgressive tale from the shtetl,  of a brothel-keeper’s virginal daughter falling in love with one of his whores and driving the father to blasphemous rage which makes him hurl at her the precious velvet scroll of the Torah which his employee girls earned for him  “on their backs and their knees”.   

        Fast-moving, time and place  signalled by captions on the back of the gilded proscenium,  the cast show us young Asch’s anxious presentation of his first play to sceptical elders  (middle-aged bearded chaps reading as lovesick girls are wickedly funny).  The visionaries  understand that “We need plays in Yiddish to represent our people, speak of our sins.  Why must Jews always be heroes?”   Others fear – presciently – that its frankness will fuel antisemitism. But as Asch says, “Ten Jews in a circle accusing each other of antisemitism” is pretty normal.   And it is 1907:  Berlin will surely love its brave sexual fluidity?   “All Germans can talk about is Dr Freud!”  The cast briefly become a Berlin cabaret, complete with Peter Polycarpou and his beard in exhilarating feather-capped drag. 

          It runs all across Europe, the dramatic final scene gloriously reproduced from every angle as a scuttling cast represent the tour of European capitals,  the young women (Alexandra Silber and Molly Osborne) flinging themselves into the sometimes comic, sometimes beautiful love scenes.  Then it’s 1920  and Staten Island,  as dear Lemmi    (by this time we are in love with the humble faithful tailor-turned stagehand and his humane wisdom)  follows Asch  through the gateway to freedom.  In Provincetown and Greenwich Village the play, in Yiddish, finds so much approval in the community that a translation is made for a Broadway opening.  One original actress cannot master good enough English, and producers see they can’t have her sounding like “a girl off the boat”.  It’s the jazz age.   Immigrants must Americanize…

         New York, though, is more shockable than old Europe.  The American replacement actress is thrilled at shocking her parents with  the lesbianism, while  Lemmi murmurs in the wings  that all love is love – “When Messiah comes, I think, no hate..”.   Trouble brews: “Jews, Polacks, take your filth back to your own country..”.  In a famous raid the vice squad swoops on the first night, Officer Baillie hopelessly getting in the way in the wings.  The arrested cast suffer a famous judgement demanding Americans are served only “upright and wholesome” plays.  In one of the many ironies of the story deftly, skimmingly thrown out in this fabulous telling,    it is a sermon by Rabbi Silverman that fuels the protest.   

       Lemmi goes back to Europe, and at last finds himself in the ghetto in Lodz, sharing the last fragments of bread as a group defiantly put on a scene of the play,  their heritage.   We know what a sharp chord from the instruments means: another raid, another terrible line echoing the Staten Island queue of twenty years earlier.   The two girls, though only in a dream,  dance and embrace, white and insubstantial and free as real rain falls.      

box office   menierchocolatefactory.com  to 27 November

rating five 

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THE MEMORY OF WATER Hampstead Theatre NW3

A HISTORIC HIT BACK, BETTER THAN EVER 

    This portrait of three bickering sisters, trading memories and revelations  in the days before a mother’s funeral in a snowy Yorkshire winter, was a Hampstead discovery 25 years ago:  a debut by Shelagh Stephenson, herself one of five sisters.  Seized by the theatre and finessed to perfection by Terry Johnson  it won an Olivier, went to the West End and the US.   It hasn’t faded. 

            As we all creak back into live-audience mode there’s a particular joy in plays you can take any way, depending on your mood.  In this case you may furrow your brow on the nature of memory,  the fact that as HMQ observes “recollections may vary”,  and the depredations of Alzheimer’s.   Alternatively, especially if female,  you can wince pleasurably at its harshly salutary portrait of a particular  20th century generation gap: the failure of understanding and the edges of envy between ‘traditional’ housewife mothers and their freedom-seeking, taboo-breaking  career daughters.  The ghost or memory of old Vi  in the play speaks for many of my generation’s mothers with her sad line  “I can’t seem to get the hang of any of you”.  Or, as a third option, you can simply enjoy the play as an excellent dark-and-light comedy.   

            The cast is faultless:  Lucy Black is nervy, organizing Teresa , married to stolid Yorkshire Frank;   Laura Rogers is Mary, the sardonic clever nerve specialist having  a long affair with a married TV doctor;   Carolina Main is the youngest, Catherine, ricocheting helplessly, hysterically  and hypochondriacally between faithless boyfriends.  Early on, when it is just the three of them in the satin-quilted maternal bedchamber  the rat-a-tat-tat of fast exchanges is jaggedly funny,  laced with the absurd non sequiturs of girl-talk: arguments about who got forgotten on a beach outing swerving into lines like “The funeral director’s got a plastic hand..” .  Their physical language is perfect.  Catherine sprawls upside down, moaning that she was never the favourite or really wanted (“She thought I was the menopause!”).  Mary is studiedly languid and defensively sexless;  Teresa a tense bustle of resentment.

        When Mike-the-married-boyfriend arrives,  frozen and grumpy from a long unheated train,  the chemistry changes.   Adam James is perfect in his doctorly detachment and already visible unreliability about commitment to Mary.    When Kulvinder Ghir’s Frank appears,  to find the women gone hysterical trying on their dead mother’s awful cocktail gowns,  he gets one of the finest comedy entrance-speeches of any year,  fresh from a loathed sales conference, fourteen diverted hours from Dusseldorf sitting next to a crazy puppetteer-for-the-deaf woman who talked.  His is a hard lot, in the family health-supplement racket:  ”You try living on goose-fat and pickled cucumbers in some emerging democracy” while trying to sell them royal jelly.  

     The great lines keep on coming,  and every character has at least one bravura moment, one aria of  life’s frustrations.  Teresa, as Frank sadly predicts,  does get “demented” when swigging whisky from the bottle and spilling the play’s saddest central secret, a moment Ortonesque in its shocking vigour.  Catherine finally gets a dumping phone call from her latest Spanish restaurateur and loses herself to lonely miserable rage while the others in their body language make it clear that this is not the first such meltdown,and the men cringe.   Mary, her saddest secret always burning under the surface,   finally turns to challenge her slippery medical lover.  The argument about a possibly drunken vasectomy-event is, again, on the edges of Orton and all the better for it.  

          It’s all splendid,  including the wickedly specific place-and-period designs by Anna Reid (oh, posh Yorkshire! O, the bedspread and the mirrored wardrobes!).  It all serves Stephenson’s beautiful writing with laser precision.  It’s on until the 16th of October, and after the 27th of this month  will no longer be ‘distanced’.  Actually,  I am tempted to go again,  just to feel a more solidly packed audience laughing and gasping around me. That’s how much fun it was.

Www.hampsteadtheatre.com.     To Oct 16. 

Rating five.  

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BIG BIG SKY Hampstead Theatre

LOVE, GRIEF, AND A BRAD PITT ALBATROSS

  With loving detail, right down a glimpse of coat-racks beyond the far door,  the downstairs studio serving Tom Wells’ new play has become  a remote Formica-and-pastie caff on its last legs; a remnant of the pre-cappuccino age but still serving the birdwatchers on the sands of the East Yorkshire coast. 

        Jennifer Daley’s Angie is in charge, with Jessica Jolleys’ young Lauren to wipe tables and her rather hopeless Dad Dennis (Matt Sutton looking suitably moth-eaten)  nipping in for a free leftover pastie-and-beans just as they’re trying to close.  And, it turns out, suddenly announcing that after 45 years ignoring those things flying around in the vast skies overhead he has  become a birdwatcher.  And   thinks he can win a photography competition.  

       Enter Ed, a pawky, skinny, gabblingly shy lad from Wolverhampton burdened with a vast khaki rucksack and anxious vegan environmentalism.  He is Airbnb-ing in Lauren’s old bedroom in the hopes of landing a job as a wildlife warden looking after Little Terns in the sandbanks.  In no time,  to his slight bafflement,  he is being instructed in line-dancing steps by Angie because Lauren plays guitar for the community in this newfound pursuit. 

    We are in  Tom Wells country, out by Spurn Point and Kilnsea,   the kind of smalltown he immortally defined in The Kitchen Sink a few years ago as “A good place to come from because it’s knackered and it’s funny and it’s falling in the sea”.   I am a late catcher of this play  (it closes this weekend) but wanted to mark it, and barrack perhaps for someone else to pick it up and tour it.   I have loved his earlier work (you can still hear Great North Run on BBC Sounds by the way) and this did not disappoint.

         The beauty of what this playwright does lies in capturing and appreciating the glory of unappreciated, underpaid and fameless lives without making them into socio-political victims. Though God knows in the North-East a lot of them are.  He writes of simple pleasures, dry jokes (“Dad, we understand the concept of migration.  You’re birdsplaining!”). Or “An Albatross?  That’s the Brad Pitt of seabirds!”.  He has a keen eye for absurdity,  and is beautifully served in this by Tessa Walker’s cast.  Not least by Sam Newton’s wide-eyed Ed and his growing relationship (it spans a year or so) with the affectionately exasperated Lauren.  He happily throws away wonderful lines like the local news that  “there’s a lot of excitement about a Tundra Bean Goose”,  trusting in smiles rather than guffaws. .      

      But his themes are as immense as any:  unexpressed long griefs, loneliness, endurance,  the consolations of nature with its fragile innocence and the human capacity to spoil it by accident  (a quality in which Dennis proves champion in one awful revelation).   This writer can be lyrical without pretension, funny without emphasis.  He is not afraid to unfold a story slowly or to deliver a gasping shock;  he economically sketches for us not only the characters’ past losses but such invisible irritants as Neil, a gay retired accountant from Leeds with a £ 3k camera who pleases the women and annoyed Dennis by starting up the line-dancing nights. 

       They’re all good,  Daley as Angie giving an understated, modest, slow-burn performance which rises to moving intensity in the final moments  which resolve exactly as they should.   In 90 minutes we lived a lot of their lives, with love, and saw what they saw in the big, big skies of remote England.  Can’t ask more. 

Rating   Four.            

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FROZEN the musical         Theatre Royal Drury Lane. WC2

ICE WORK IF YOU GET IT…

       Phew. The Broadway-rooted, Disneylicious,  long-awaited red-carpet premiere night featured (of course) an ice -blue carpet.  And  the throng bursting out to meet the paps afterwards was met by actual snow-blowers,   so that  our soggy heatwave outfits blended nicely into the evening’s actual rain as we skittered out of range. As if we weren’t confused enough by this Lopez-and-Lee adaptation-cum-homage to the animated Disney film,  itself very freely based on The Snow Queen by that treasured oddball Hans Christian Anderson.   

            The film itself has, against all sense,  over its eight year life firmly gripped the global female imagination from age five to millennial.  It has caused tots to build countless Olafs in this spring’s snowfall, and their new-feminist single aunties to go karaoke mad every hen night with the anthem Let it Go,  resolving  “don’t be the good girl you always have to be..test the limits, break through, no rules for me”. 

      Which is only problematic if you pause to notice that Elsa’s personal liberation from trying to control her powers and regulate her emotions involves nearly killing her sister twice, plunging a country into perpetual winter and starvation, and gliding off to stay alone in an ice palace, seeing nobody.  More late-Ceaucescu than Cinderella.   Her sister Anna has to work for the happy ending without even having one decent anthem. 

    Cards on the table, I only watched the film a few days ago for research, and while mildly fond of Olaf the snowman found it odd going. And wondered why (apart from the obvious)    Michael Grandage, subtle and thoughtful director, would involve himself.  Unless for the sheer glee of big-show big-machinery, with Christopher Oram and video designer Finn Ross let loose to draw elegantly on Norwegian art,  and create immense shining northern lands and instant icicles while deploying astonishing lighting and snappy costume and set  transformations.  So OK, yes,  you can see why he would. 

       And being a savvy director Grandage does keep it speedy:  indeed the production’s greatest saving grace is in the choreographer Rob Ashford’s ability to pop in fast, short dance jokes and effects (ensemble  required to be sea waves, trolls, snowstorms, and at one point impressively frozen into a solid block).   Beyond that, I really don’t  buy the director’s valiant attempt to talk up the parallel with our frozen Covid year.  Or the feminism.

      One problem the adaptors met is in having to use quite a lot of the film’s dialogue, which is – in gallant Anna’s case – painfully half-baked high-school romcom banter (“Can I say something crazy?” “I like crazy!”).  Olaf the snowman, beautifully handled by Craig Gallivan, has better lines, and  manages to get his head separated from his chubby arse at one point,  a pleasing nod to the animated film.  Among the new songs the Hygge one is the most successful,   especially when supplemented by a faux-nude conga out of the sauna in some very remarkable hats.  Of the original songs (apart from Let it Go) the best transplanted one is “Fixer-Upper”.    

         But the jerking between Disney infantilism and moments of artistic grandeur is sometimes plain odd.  When the romcom high jinks of Ana and Hans precede the solemn coronation moment with a properly spine-tingling choir, it feels like two clashing shows.    On the other hand there’s good dramatic distinction between the sisters’  moves and voices: Samantha Barks gliding around as a pure fine classically-toned Elsa and Stephanie McKeon galumphing lovably with more of a  mid-Atlantic popster sound.  That works. 

       So it’s a decent enough Christmas show.   And whoever spends the time inside Sven the Reindeer, a proper panto-beast with excellent legs,  deserves a bow too. As they all do, and frankly, get the fourth mouse for it.  These big musicals have had to rehearse and solidify at warp speed after the worst year ever for the business.Honour to them.    But for all the design and directorial and choreographic brilliance,  I cannot lie:  Frozen the Musical is not a pig’s ear, but neither is it quite the silk purse it should be.  

Box office   Www.booking.lwtheatres.co.uk      To JUNE 2022

Rating four, one being bigmusicals-mouse 

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