Monthly Archives: October 2021

TONY! A rock opera newborn at the Park Theatre N4


Not a review,  because this was the first performance of a modest weekend testing the water:  a script-in-hand, moustaches-falling-off,  fresh-outta-workshop low key tryout.  But some of us, especially at a time when TB keeps trying to sidle back into the limelight  ,  pounced like starving cheetahs on this much-awaited blast of furious merriment at “Britain’s first pop PM”. 

    I had heard a year ago about Harry Hill and Steve Brown having another go (after I Can’t Sing met mixed reviews and pleased its hero Simon Cowell just that bit too much).  No danger of that problem this time.  

   Oh no. I can reasonably reveal that it will hurt, not only TB himself but specially him.  There’s real contempt for spin,  vanity, the Iraq invasion and even the grinning PM’s treatment of poor Gordon Brown with his basso-profundo and tartan underpants.   There are sparkles of rage amid the glorious Hill jokes and barbed, carefully finessed and divinely silly rhymes.   Hill himself, alongside Brown, popped up before the start  (to cries of “Fiiight!”, obviously).  

       The cast of nine under Peter Rowe’s direction morph between characters and atrocious wigs: Brown’s music is alternately pleasingly reminiscent of music-hall, G&S, Handel, Tom Lehrer and at one point Oasis. The PR says the show  “plays fast and loose with the facts, owing as much to Citizen Kane as it does to The Marx Brothers”, though the latter had less trouble keeping their moustaches on. 

 Diana appears twice, Mandelson repeatedly, Campbell once, and Saddam gets a song WS Gilbert would love.  To a shower of placards naming villains from Stalin to Kim Jong Il, a small but packed house sang lustily along with the finale “The whole wide world is run by assholes”.  And, I think, accepted its responsibility, here in the heart of NewLab north London.

     But it’s not a review. Script in hand despite some vigorous strutting and larking, it was as theatre makers say jus a “sharing” .  All I will say is that hell, Harry,  I do very much look forward to the real. premiere, wherever it is….


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GET UP, STAND UP! Lyric Theatre, WC1



  Everything Bob Marley sings lifts the heart,  instructing it to rise and triumph and unite in joy:  lively-up yourself!   Let’s get together and feel all right!  Emancipate yourself from mental slavery!   No need to be Jamaican, or black, or Rastafarian: just human.  Buying a ticket on the first day for this musical of his short life, I hoped for that feeling from this musical (Lee Hall wrote the book, always a good sign). I pretty much, got it. 

    The stage is a castle of crates and amps and speakers; up front I was next to a DJ booth where a cheeky Jacade Simpson  – even before the start  – charms the nearest blonde (“You come wit’ somebody?”).   Then in the rackety world of 1950’s Jamaica , little Robert  Nesta Marley loses his often-absent father and goes to live with grandmother, meets Neville (who was to become Bunny Wailer),  moves to Trenchtown, and jams with his mates,  all  rude-boy pop and ska.  But slows it down, edges into reggae, spouts joyful words, gets  jammin’ with the Wailers in every dance hall and  fighting to get paid. 

       Arinzé Kene is all Bob, wonderfully in the spirit and musically perfect;   when he meets Rita , a defiantly independent lady whose vigour and musicality is given everything we need by a magnificent Gabrielle Brooks,   before she succumbs to that single bed in a glorious “Is it love?” duet.  Even so,  she tells Bob with his Syrian-Jewish streak of heritage,   he isn’t black enough.   Jacade Simpson’s Bunny, third of the central trio, is a joy too,  as is the leapingly energetic ensemble.  

       So to England on tour – great headline projections on the ever-changing wooden crates of the set,  and a splendid moment of disgust at the weather (in Leicester) and decision to go home.  The Wailers split up, leave him.  On goes Bob. tragically briefly,   trying to evade political attempts to enrol him,  surviving a shooting,  triumphant musically  and less so domestically in his multiple babyfather-life .

       This tendency alienates both Miss Jamaica Cindy Breakspeare (Shanay Holmes)  and Rita.  Who,  in a stunning musical coup de theatre,  is the one who sings No Woman No Cry,  with those tender memories of early, broke, happy days in the ‘government yard” (I met her once, proud moment, she cherishes that line).  It is very beautiful.   Finally Kene sings Redemption Song,  alone on the jutting front arm of the stage,  and there is proper awe in the room,  feeling that once again it is happening. This is followed, naturally, by a lot of leaping up and down .   Every little thing’s gonna be all right so get up, stand up, give it an ovation. 

       If the show has a fault, it is that the first half skates too fast over events and conversations,   in favour of one too many big numbers: a bit too jukebox. But the second is magnificent. In his diagnosis and rising sense of doom, and in that extraordinary duet with Rita,  Arinzé Kene is marvellously physically expressive, and  in the lasts great song,  heroic.    It is a huge affirmation of heart and humanity, and it’ll be hard to stop me buying another ticket.

box office   to 3 April

rating four

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THE DEVIL IN THE DETAIL: scenes from the Grenfell Inquiry 

  There was a spate of criticism when Richard Norton Taylor’s dramatisation of the Grenfell Inquiry was announced, despite it being a not-for- profit enterprise, set in and for the neighbourhood which grieves the disaster.  It’s directed by the legendary master of verbatim and inquiry drama Nicolas Kent (remember him at the Tricycle.? Guantanamo, MacPherson, the Afghanistan sequence?).   Some critics were angry that it might be making money for white theatremakers on the back of victims of colour;  others suspicious that it was not using their testimonies of victims, but those of  the engineers, builders, contractors and local politicians who were middle class and mainly white.   The response was obvious: yes, the victims matter intensely,  yes, it was a national  scandal and betrayal of council tenants in the richest borough in rich London.  Their griefs and memories dominated the first year of inquiry, but we also  need to know why?  who? how?   Who signed off what deal, when?  How come such highly flammable material was used for cosmetic improvement of the ropy old tower in rich West London,  rather than more expensive and safer materials?  Were corners were cut, or unpardonable economies calculated because the inhabitants were disadvantaged? Were whistleblowers and reasonable tenant complaints ignored?  (pretty much, yes).

     The point of appointing Sir Martin Moore Bick (which again was subject to misguided complaints because he is white and posh, being an elderly judge) was that he’s the right man:  his experience is precisely in knotty technical matters like shipping and logistics. Of course compassion was needed.  But for the future, and for any blame that will fall,  urgently needed was  that forensic, wordy, detailed digging of emails and questions about training, expertise, and the role of aesthetics and economies.  That is what the inquiry did. And what this play boils down, shows us in miniature.

            But what can a theatre production do? Ram it home, that’s what. In editing important remarks, clarify the central message: that Kensington and Chelsea council were more worried about aesthetics than tenants’ safety and decent facilities, that an architectural practice was not expert of interested in fire safety, that a cladding supplied who found it ever harder selling a flammable product in Europe was keen to unload it on the UK, that our regulations on this were either inadequate or ignored.   

    Don’t expect high drama or Rumpolean orations: it is carefully set in a bland room, with Ron Cook as the main QC and Thomas Wheatley as  Sir Martin Moore-Bick in the chair:  a calm, listening judge with a long career in technical shipping matters.  Actors speak the exact lines of  lawyers and witnesses.  Once, a horrified building control officer  (played by Howard Ward) admits he was the “final link” who might have defied what was being done.  Once there is a woman (Polly Kemp) admitting she “binned” her notebooks about crucial meetings even after the fire.  The actors have studied footage of the people they play, and do it understatedly, realistic.    Sometimes a screen shows emails between the Council, the contractors, the salesman in the cladding firm. 

       The civility, the calm, and the painful, painful questioning grip you:  I sat among some school parties from the neighbourhood, concentrating intensely.   The statements from suppliers of the Celotex material which replaced  a safer more expensive option offer real moments of underemphasised shock.  There are strong brief speeches from two barristers representing survivors,  but the devil is in the detail: in failures of careful  public duty.  Tells too much about a Britain, and a local authority,   that could do better.    to 13  nov. Then to Birmingham Rep.

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WHITE NOISE Bridge Theatre, SE1


      This feels like a howl of baffled frustration, from a millennial generation ( writer and director, and all four characters) unable to deal with the emotional legacy of  a long-ago slave trade : none of them yet ,  often to their credit,  finding it possible in today’s America  to follow Marley’s instruction and “emancipate yourself from mental slavery”.  A long stage thrusts defiantly into the audience:  eventually becomes a shooting-range, with a nice mechanical coup-de-theatre taking us by surprise first time (good old Bridge!).But  first it has to roll us into the bedroom and kitchen of two interracial  American couples as their old college foursome-friendship disintegrates. 

    Suzan-Lori Parks (a Pulitzer winner) in 2016 called it her “angry play” ;  reworked for this European premiere directed by Polly Findlay  it is angrier still after the George Floyd murder and the confused angers of identity politics and easy offence.  The young people’s hidden attitudes glide  like monsters under a smooth veneer of well-meaning wokery. Sometimes it is entertaining in a despairing sort of way; sometimes alarming. 

     Leo is a nervy, insomniac black artist not doing well, living with Dawn, a right-on white lawyer; Ralph is a well-off liberal lecturer whose girlfriend Misha runs a whoopingly cheerful online show called “Ask a black!!”   Showily supportive to Misha, really Ralph is  seething at losing a promotion he wanted to a Sri Lankan. There’s a sly suggestion that not being of African heritage, the brown man doesn’t really count anyway.  Meanwhile Leo has been stopped and thrown on the pavement  by police.  Dawn wants him to sue,  but he doesn’t trust the system to be on his side,  and instead demands that  Ralph buys him as a slave.   What?  Well,  “Back in the day”  , Leo reckons, a powerful man’s slave would have protection as a chattel. It is mad and tasteless, even for the forty days Ralph unwillingly agrees to. But the strength of the play is that we can both see his mad ideological reasoning and see that he is on the edge of a breakdown anyway.  One of the group immediately assumes it’s performance-art, being videoed, which again tells us something about the times.

     It plays on, sometimes for laughs but increasingly frightening as white Ralph, naturally,  gets a taste for being Master.  Even joins an absurd White Club which endorses him.  One  scene has the whole audience gasping, no spoiler here.  The second half in particular is peppered with monologues,   sometimes too long but rich in ideas about racial  misunderstanding and the sort of  hostility that gets a friendly well meant gesture condemned as  “white saviour!”.   It tangles  with other human discomforts:  unequal relationships, money and class. Ken Nwosu is amazing as Leo, Helena Wilson every inch the liberal lawyer in a permanent bind of guilt,  and Faith Omole beautifully evokes the irritation of a sophisticated black woman who, to get attention for her show has to “perform blackness” by playing the cartoonish bouncy diva her audience expect.  

     It is, frankly,  a stretch to believe how rapidly the slavemaster experience turns Ralph into a complete fascist, but that’s the only cavil. There’s a sex scene, a betrayal, which I suppose is pretty much compulsory, but adds nothing but more pessimism.   If  the message is that none of us can easily escape our slaver-or-saviour mentality,   it’s a grim one.  On the other hand,  irrespective of race you might notice that it’s the two men who go nuts,  and the women who don’t. Make of that what you will…

Box office  To 13 november

Rating. Four.  

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THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH.        Almeida, N1


  Say what you like about star-casting and auteur-ish directors messing with Shakespeare, but sometimes a multiple Academy Award nominee has a trumpeted on a British stage  –  opposite one of our own nominees – and you think yep, worth it!    Saioirse Ronan is a Lady Macbeth to remember for years:  a steely fragile pillar of ambition who crumbles before our eyes and haunts the whole play.    Yael Farber, the director who shook the Old Vic with The Crucible, has created a  timeless arraignment of human violence which takes its own path but serves the text immaculately in every second of its three smoky, tense hours.  If you can’t get in, see below for limited streaming dates. This is special.

    And frankly a relief, after the last two major Macbeths in  2018 (I exempt the tiny Wanamaker one) because both RSC and NT versions suffered grievously from directorial vanity and a glut of plastic baby dolls (though only one had a Bex-Bissel carpet sweeper cluttering up the stage).  I did wonder for a moment ,when Farber’s opened with a bare stage , a wheelchair, a tap on a standpipe, a wheelbarrowful of old boots and a wheelchair  (it’s King Duncan’s, he’s very doddery here) . never fear. The fact that it is timeless and nationless – costumes range from kilts to battle dress to the witches in business suits –  serves the magnificent cast in their passionate, often flawless delivery of the great familiar lines,made musical by Scottish and Irish voices. 

     It is rich too in subtle, well-thought out psychological shadings.  Like the moment when James McArdle’s nervy  Macbeth dismisses his previously dominant, scrappy and  organised wife rather brusquely because he wants to order the killing of  Banquo and his son (Fleance played here as very young) . She glances back, puzzled but obedient, like any woman thinking ‘this is new..not like him..what’s going on..?’.   In the truly shaking moments when he falls into terrified hysteria at the coronation banquet, Ronan returns to a brittle celebrity hostess mode, excusing his extreme rantings at the (frighteningly sudden) ghost. It is with  a  self-possessed little giggle that she urges the company to ignore them.  Her journey downhill is beginning, her conscience awakening under the veneer.

       In many productions she almost vanishes until the sleepwalking scene, but here, because it dwells within a long dream of horror for them all,  she is rarely invisible on the deep always murky stage. She wanders  as a guilty ghost through the killing of the Macduff children and her sleepwalking and deathbed are part of the battle scene, just  as  Banquo and the witches are always with Macbeth, joining in his horned, surreally bestial nightmares.   The tap  standpipe on the stage, constantly used by characters to try and wash away the latest blood, finally overruns so that the lady’s body lies horribly still in a pool of water.  And there in the final moments Macduff and Macbeth grapple, soaked with wet, blood and guilt. Emun Elliott’s Macduff is tremendous, both in grief and rage, rising up to the churning, thrashing McArdle in equal power:  the macho energy pulsing off that small stage from all the men is overwhelming, speeding up your heart and terror.  Yet there is subtler meaning in every longdrawn bow of the ‘cello in Tom Lane’s score: it too is always there, played by Aoife Burke as a gentlewoman attendant, onlooker of this violent maleness.  

      Every tweak of the text and settings Farber makes is an addition,not an auteur-vanity: there is sense giving some lines to the witches and mercifully omitting the always tedious Porter with his clownish gags about brewer’s droop.  Akiya Henry’s Lady Macduff sings gently to her children at the banquet, and later her voice again rises in high wild voiceless exotic grief for the wicked world .   As for the bleak staging,  with cast gathered at beginning the end around a lantern,  the chief witch (Diane Fletcher, bleakly authoritative) asks for a second time. “When shall we three meet again?”  And with awful certainty replies  “Anon..”    ///Farber leaves us with a sad unresigned certainty that human murderousness will always be there, somewhere on the edge of understanding, half-glimpsed in the mist. 

Rating.  5

Box office    To 30 October

NB NB. From Wed27 – Sat 30 Oct. the play will be 

Broadcast live for five performances.   Tickets,

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INTO BATTLE Greenwich Theatre


    Balliol College Oxford, 1910. Confident young Etonians are hurling crockery downstairs, yelling “I’m a bastard, I’m a bastard, rather be a bastard than a Trinity man” and making war on Keith, the  socially-conscious Northern scholar who runs a  boys’ club for hungry kids with striker fathers. The Junior Dean, anxious Rev.Neville, daren’t send the ringleader Billy Grenfell down because his rich parents dine with Asquith, his elder brother Julian is a college hero currently off with depression and a dangerous bout of social liberalism, and their father Lord Desborough is a national hero of sport, climbing, Channel-swimming, etc.   

   Billy, blithely throwing Keith’s possessions and desk out of a third floor window, explains “I can do what I like because lane I can pay”. His famously rich and beautiful mother  is vampily cougaring red-haired student Patrick , but takes a moment off to bribe Keith not to press charges for assault against Billy by giving the Boys’Club a building.

     It’s a mischievously brilliant moment for a history-play about horrible entitled Etonian louts in an Oxford dining club, who torment  animals for fun in the quad and bait Northern plebs . Not to mention a good time for the young Churchill in voiceover to say, as he did :

‘The greatest danger to the British people is not among the enormous fleets and armies of Europe. No. It is here in our midst, close at home, close at hand, in the unnatural gap between rich and poor’.

     But this isn’t the Royal Court, or hysterical Buller-beating exaggeration like Posh. It’s a debut play by Hugh Salmon, a former ad executive who researched it in convalescence because his grandfather played rugby  with one of the dining club set, the great international Ronald Poulton-Palmer, who is one of the Etonians though the least toxic.  And the century-old story of these real young men is worth telling,  because within a few years all of them were in the trenches,  side by side,  alongside teenage Tommies from boys’ clubs.  They died together, and it is not beyond imagination that before that they understood the absurdity of earlier attitudes.

    The story is imaginatively told  against a set of ragged gothic arches and scattered books, both the larking and the final wartime moments vivid and brilliantly staged by director Ellie Jones and Steve Kirkham. Only Neville, the longsuffering college Dean and decorated wartime padre (beautifully played by Iain Fletcher, the eternal anguished peacemaker) survived the war.  Julian died of his wounds, old enemies Keith Rae and Billy Grenfell fell the same day in 1915, as did Ronnie Poulton who had tried hard to curb the Etonian vandals at college. Patrick Shaw Stewart died in the Dardanelles, his last letter to friends full of self-deprecating fun.  Alexander Knox is a delight in the part, as is Nikolas Salmon as the burly, initially awful but finally gallant Billy; Molly Gaisford gives Lady Desborough a nice acid upperclass edge, though burdened with far too long a death scene over Julian.  Joe Gill is a solid decent Rae who conveys both his social indignation and the fact that like all of them, at college he is still a kid. And Anna Bradley, on a professional debut fresh out of drama school,  niftily doubles with glee as an urchin turned Tommy and a housemaid entangled with Billy. 

    It’s a play that could do with a bit of finessing still, but it has a proper, thoughtful historical sense (the sources in the programme are plentiful and fascinating). and  I hope it lives on , a reminder that the most toxic youthful masculinity might turn to self-forgetful heroism. Makes you remember some of the have-a-go heroes in recent terrorist attacks.   Julian’s Grenfell war poem with the, romantic heroics of his generation, gives the play its title and it’s ending: 

   “The thundering line of battle stands,

  And in the air Death moans and sings;

  But Day shall clasp him with strong hands,

  And Night shall fold him in soft wings”

Box office.  To. 31 October

Rating. 3

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OUR WHITE SKODA OCTAVIA Sir John Mills Ipswich & touring


     Shamser Sinha – who is on the National Theatre Connections project – relished the idea of writing a play about a South-Asian working-class family in England today which didn’t involve forced marriage, honour killings or  the temptations of teenage terrorism.  Nor does it major on racism, though like a troublesome ache that always runs under such lives:  the sensitive  son Faisal, who dreams of stars and the universe and reads St-Exupery’s The Little Prince, gets punched at school.  But then the problem is actually aggravated by his amiable but slightly muttonheaded Dad Amjad the cab driver,  who nags at him not to be girly but punch back.   And that is interracially relatable if anything is.  Indeed mostly we could be in any working-class drama of the last seventy years, in a good way.  Though as Amjad ruefully says, whenever a passenger gets into his cab,   he is “for them the only Pakistani in town”,  so he must always be professional, a credit to his race. And that’s a burden.

       Rachana Jadhav’s set, artfully tour-able for the play’s 15 next venues all the way to Guildford, has a car door, a section of cab office and some nicely sketched domesticity.  In the first half Tiran Aakel as Amjad and Freny Nina Pavri as Rabla are talking about the cab business (here in the East we have, it seems, the lowest fares in England)  . They hope to buy their own car.   Yasmin, still a child,  and teenage Faisal wander in and out.  Underlying it all is a quiet grief, and the parents’ decision whether to have another baby after losing their infant Ruksana.  

     They are an engrossing, finely drawn pair: Amjad is earthier, practical, stubborn, beautifully drawn; hypnotically interesting though is his far more educated wife, with a Masters’ in Eonomics but no chance of a graduate job:“Your name is not Brown but your face is!” observes her husband. 

Pavri is an Indian classical musician,  with a dancer’s grace and soulful eye; she opens the show with a mesmeric solo raga and in the second half plays tabla, mirroring the heartbeat of emotion and tragedy.  Her practicality is, however,  in actually greater than her husband’s.  The frustration of his accounting, and his stubbornness in wasting time chasing one bilked fare rather than earning four more , does not help the nailbiting quest to buy the car.  She is also more deeply religious, believing utterly that “to Allah we belong” and that ill-deeds to anyone are a sin against the universe.   At the end of the first act, though, she gives up and wants a separation.  Amjad is poleaxed – “Nobody gets divorced! Who does these things? I don’t beat you…”.   

       The second act sees the family some time later;  she having moved  away into a hippyish life and social work with prisoners,  he left alone with Guriot Dhaliwal’s patient Yasmin trying  to make him eat better.  Faisal is desperate to leave the cabbing treadmill and take up an unpaid internship in his beloved astrophysics. The play is woven through with moments when, framed in the car window, we see and hear infuriating clients: the girl without enough money saying no, she can’t ask her Dad for another tenner when she gets home, and being let off by Amjad.  Others ask endless samey questions  (“How long is your shift, when do you get off?”) and the equally endless “Where are you from?  No, really from?” which brown faces in polite customer-facing jobs get used to.  The author’s researches among cab drivers certainly pay off. 

          But at the same time there is  friction between the siblings:  Amjad promised the price of the Skoda between them:  if Faisal gets it all he can follow his dream,  if Yasmin does she might afford to stand for the Council and remedy some (rather obscurely and too glancingly explained)   injustices in the local licensing trade.

          I stayed engrossed, though frustrated at times by those small un-clarities,  and by Faisal being given a really difficult breakdown to negotiate:  the young performer badly needs to give it more changes of tone, a slower pace and better articulation,  in order to take us all the way with him. But that’s an unfair quibble because I saw it right at the start of the run;  director Sameena Hussain will have sorted that out by now.  

         And I’m glad I saw it:  all four characters stay with me a day later,  Aakel and Pavri as the parents  in particular.  In one of the deft doublings Aakel becomes a grumpy,  dim, slightly threatening white passenger and  then  – in the eyes of his overstressed son at the wheel –   suddenly mutates into his dead father.  That is a properly alarming coup de theatre. for tour details to 5 November

box office 01473 211498 (Monday – Friday: 10am – 2pm) 

 rating  3 and a gallant-tour mouse because few others cover as much ground:

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     Every Hamlet should give us something new.  The play is a philosophical and psychological labyrinth,  its jewels and seams of gold hidden in unexpected crevices: there has never been a definitive performance or setting.  Last time it was at the Young Vic it was framed in a mental hospital, with  Hamlet genuinely disturbed,  Ophelia pushing the meds trolley offering rosemary for remembrance , like Prozac.  (you actually had to walk in through forbidding corridors with frightening doors and keypads.  On press night someone pushed a keypad at random and blew the entire lighting plot for half an hour or more so we had to be sent back to the bar).  

     That starred Michael Sheen, who was wonderful, a magnetic-hysteric:   and because we were assuming him to be as demented as the worried doctor Claudius thought, he found lines and expressions about mental disorders which immensely moved me, at a time I was hypersensitive to such.    I wrote this:

  “Sheen’s pallid elfin hypersensitivity and wide animated eyes bring us a Prince unhinged, lost in inner space.  The opening court scene is a circle of plastic chairs, therapy-group style; Claudius (James Clyde)  is a smooth, suited doctor,  addressing them with patronizing patience. Hamlet has his poor suitcase packed for the escape he will not be allowed, and  Polonius’ lecture to Laertes has the ring of advice to a discharged patient.   It could all be a tiresome directorial conceit, but the brilliant and horrible thing, which suggests that Shakespeare himself patrolled the edges of sanity long before Lear,  is that it fits.  The text, even away from Hamlet’s  tortured soliloquies and “feigned” madness and Ophelia’s dissolution, speaks the language of real mental disturbance:  times out of joint, weariness of life,   unbeing,  delusion, paranoia,  remorse”.  

     This time there is no such extreme interpretation:  Greg Hersov ‘s production is sober, modern-dress, set amid great semitransparent blocks which, with clever lighting, suggest depths of disturbance even outside the ghost scenes.  But it has its own revelations to offer.  At their core is the subtle, androgynous troubling performance by Cush Jumbo:  shaven-headed, lean and rangy and expressively physical, neither girl nor boy but the essence of youth itself.

       Hamlet, after all, has always spoken as powerfully to young women as to boys:  grieving, indecisive, hesitant, deploying feline feminine tactics in setting up the play to catch the King’s conscience.  He/She is fixed on a heroic but flawed father, resenting a mother,  feeling helpless, self-hating and despising;  bored by lecturing Polonius, pleased to see schoolfriends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but rapidly outraged if they line up with the grownups.  And on top of all this,  awakened to the awfulness of the elder world,  and struggling – to be or not to be ?- with a very topical dilemma in the age of XR and the rest,  asking whether it is best to endure or to be an activist, take arms against it all and end it.

   See? Doesn’t need to be a young man:  just a teenager of either sex.  And this is what Jumbo’s performance gives us, most beautifully:  dancing with Ophelia (it is rare to be offered such a glimpse of how easy and happy the relationship was before the Ghost moved in on him)   then breaking up with her in despair at the state of the world.    From Jumbo’s first peerlessly sarky, shrugging line  at the family gathering (“A little more than kin and less than kind”) to the growl which demands the too too solid flesh to melt,  her Hamlet is us, when young, when angry.  The bravura swagger into Gertrude’s room to confront her,  and the crushed guilty grief at having stabbed the wrong man through the arras rings true;   her immaculate rendering of the too-familiar lines is both respectful and defiant.  This is a very, very fresh and classy Hamlet. 


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It was rising eight years ago  that the first two parts of Hilary Mantel’s majestic Wolf Hall  trilogy came to the stage, adapted by Mike Poulton and directed by Jeremy Herrin.  And

I well remember the wild exhilaration of seeing them on the same day in the little Swan, most intimate of  theatres, and well remember feeling – as did others there – that if Mantel had finished the set, Poulton and Herrin made a play of it, and someone wound Ben Miles up for another show – well,  we would happily have stayed all night to see the story out.  Mantel, sometimes difficult to read, has a passionate understanding, or so it feels, of  the working-class Thomas Cromwell: the man who shaped Henry VIII’s reign and the English Reformation, manoeuvred through the court politics of the day and then came to grief at last . Like so many others. 

   This time it is not the  Swan , with an audience wrapped (and rapt) on three sides of the drama, but the conventional Gielgud and a proscenium.  Moreover, Poulton is not the re-shaper of the tale. Mantel, having loved the rehearsal process, wanted stronger input in the script, and her only collaborator aside from the director is Ben Miles, who for the third time is Cromwell. If there is any difference in approach, I would venture to say that the focus is more uniquely sharp on her hero this time: one of the joys of the first two was the confidence with which every courtier, and every woman trapped by her biology or its failings,  stood out as an individual.  

        But the untangling clarity (at which Poulton was a master). Is still there;  and Ben Miles remains a powerful and sensitive anchor.   And some other individuals do stand out satisfactorily.  Nicholas Woodeson as the Duke of Norfolk is a fierce, cross spiky little hedgehog of a man in a red bonnet, always putting the Howard women forward and detesting the promoted chav Cromwell;  Leo Wan as the sycophantic Riche is convincing and often funny; the Duke of Suffolk (Nicholas Boulton) one of the few entirely likeable courtiers.   Melissa Allan’s primly Catholic Mary Tudor is a sharp little needle of defiance, and poor Anne of Cleves – the “Flanders Mare” rejected by Henry – is given immense dignity by Rosanna Adams,  high-chinned, immaculately evoking the position of a woman who understands the misogynist politics of the age all too well.  Promised a handsome prince and sold to an “angry old bear” for reasons of European political boundaries  and trade in alum for the English wool dyers,  she speaks with contemptuous Germanic dignity of the King’s inability to consummate. “I lie down for him and pray to Mary to give him strength”.   The courtiers’ cry of “What about the alum?” when he demands a divorce got a proper rocking tide of audience laughter. 

    And of course there’s Henry.  Nathaniel Parker at first gives the performance a little too much of the James-Robertson-Justice-playing-Sir Lancelot-Spratt,  but in the second half his grief for Jane Seymour and awareness of his own weakness become touching, as he cries “Make me happy, Crom!”. It is as much a play about physical decline as about politics. 

    But we get quite comfortably across the politics: or mainly so. The interval, inevitably, was a matter of people in the aisles who never read the books or much history, scrolling through Wikipedia to straighten out the bits and characters they didn’t quite get . The northern “Pilgrimage of Grace” against Henry’s (and Cromwell’s) depredation of the monasteries is dealt with in mere minutes with a big banner, some shouting,  and a royal roar about not being scared of “rural pisswits!”. But it had baffled my neighbours a bit more than was comfortable.  Probably because they hadn’t been to a Catholic school and firmly told about it by nuns.   The appearance of several ghosts to Cromwell caused one or two more questions in the run to the bar:  there’s his father (Liam Smith, who reappears as Holbein) and the long dead Wolsey (Tony Turner) with a nice line in self-important clerical hauteur even regarding God. 

But even if you came to it cold, like the others this play would grip you by the throat.  And if ,one day soon – let it be soon – the first two are revived by the RSC with this one to follow, I will happily pay to devote a couple of days to it.  Especially if it is back in the Swan.

Box office   To 23 jan

Rating five

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THE WOMAN IN BLACK (yes, honestly)


I was on the early train up when news came that poor old Southwark had ,for the second time, been forced by illness to cancel two performances of Tokyo Rose.   Having a matinee- shaped space to fill, and a light drizzle starting,  what does a theatrecat do?   Obvious.  Its  feline mission is  to sniff around the corners of the reviving theatrical world in search of forgotten or even stale morsels. Its what cats do.  And the only other matinee on a Tuesday – apart from the clever Jermyn, already reviewed below – is  that hoar old chestnut The Woman in Black.  

    It has been resident in the humble Fortune theatre opposite the stage door of Lloyd Webber’s palatial Theatre Royal Drury Lane since 1989.  An almost Mousetrappy achievement.  And I had not seen the film, read the book, or been told whodunnit or whether it’s a real ghost, or anything.  Perfect.  The cheapest  matinee ticket is £ 27,  and the one I chose was what you might call immersive, being knee-cramped right up against the edge of the stage next to a raggedly draped section of pit which I assumed to be a sinister grave.  Quite liked it, once I went numb:  the sense an actor might tread on you is always exciting.  Behind me, two school parties (it’s often a set book, Susan Hill’s descriptive lyrical passages of writing being worth it).   Also a scattering of tourists, lured by the promise of a slick two-hours-with interval with some moments of utter terror and – a German lady observed to her friend as they left – “proper good-speaking English for learning”.  

      So what’s it like?  Better than the Mousetrap, for one thing.  It’s a two-hander:  Terence Wilton and Max Hutchinson both in turn being the solicitor who meets terror on the wild eastern marshes, in a desolate house where the enigmatic Mrs Drablow has died.  It’s nicely framed (good for school drama classes) as at first the young man tries to get the story told more dramatically by the old, traumatized lawyer who is haunted by memory, and then takes over, playing the part of him long ago, as the real man plays all the other parts in a variety of Mummerzet accents which don’t sound nearly as east-coast as this North Sea purist would have liked.   But then, he’s an elderly London solicitor playing people he met fifty years ago, so fair enough.   And there is, of course, a woman. Who does not speak ,but terrifies the bejasus out of the school party, who squeak delightedly.  And let there be no spoilers (Mousetrap rules apply),  so let me just say that Robin Herford directs with tense aplomb, that our hero can scream for England,  that Mr Kevin Sleep’s lighting-plot is very important indeed, that it may be set (by Michael Holt). in grey drapes but there are Certain Things behind them.  Oh, and there’s an invisible dog.

    So I greatly enjoyed my two hours and don’t grudge it a penny.  Because it is wonderful to have theatre back at every level, actors and lighting crews working, audiences gasping,  and school parties remembering that it can be fun to gather and be told a creepy story without an agenda or the slightest intention to be ‘relevant and relatable’ to their lives.   And which isn’t a musical.

    I would not be so impertinent as to rate it.  It’s lasted 32 years and survived a pandemic, and it’s more fun than the bloody Mousetrap. I wandered on, contented, to the evening’s grander task of last-preview at the Gielgud of The Mirror And The Light. WHere, interestingly, my ticket was also a comparative bargain-basement one , knees against the stage front. Review later tonight after the embargo…

But here for the W in B cast and crew are some mice rejoicing at the end of the long, long Covid drought of theatre

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This show, which I had the joy of seeing in a packed Theatre Royal Norwich alongside many small  thrilled children,  knows exactly how to get their attention first thing.   A homely bedroom in a neat central window blows apart with a deafening bomb-blast , into a big frame of ragged bricky ruins.  It leaves  three children orphaned, rattled around on evacuation trains and dumped in a sinister civic museum awaiting their temporary home.  Candice Edmunds’ direction offers a bravura start, well-served by Jamie Harrison’s artfully tour-able design and the additional thrill of a real band  tuning up in the orchestra pit  beforehand (some of the kids leaning over excitedly before the start, realizing this was real not a movie).   

        Its pedigree is interesting:  in the 1940s, before she wrote the more famous Borrowers series, Mary Norton wrote two novels about three children and the prim witch next door. Eglantine Price enchants a bedknob, so that the brass bed could fly them either anywhere they want – if it is twisted one way – or to any period they chose if twisted the other way.  Wild adventures follow, including a journey to rescue  Emelius, a medieval necromancer accused of witchcraft.   I grew up on the book and can recommend it.  The 1971 Disney musical film which took it over  (with music by the Shermans) removed the time-travel entirely,  made the children world war 2 evacuees and gave the witch Miss Price  a mission to defeat a German invasion. 

     Fair enough, and it wouldn’t be a Disney production without big wild dances (“Portobello Road” especially good),  an undersea ballet of luminous fish,  and a rom-com relationship developing between the witch and Emelius (this time a failing magician with a joke shop).   But how, given the magic, will it work onstage?   

       The answer is, “brilliantly!”.  Adults looking for something that isn’t pure panto this winter,  and don’t fancy the high costs and weird plot of Frozen,  are in luck.  Dianne Pilkington is a spirited witch, posh and intimidating at first to the children (here reimagined as Cockney sparrers) but she has real emotional subtlety and deftly delightful physicality as she struggles with her first recalcitrant broomstick.   And yes it takes off, magnificently,  even able to transport her apparently through a window-frame.  The bed flies too, again unaccountably against an artfully dark background.  There is some classy close-up magic in the tropical island scene, from both Pilkington and Charles Brunton’s Emelius,  and the museum exhibits of armour and weaponry are impressively magicked into defeating the helmeted Huns.   

         But one of the great things about good children’s theatre is showing just enough of the workings, the sleight of hand and potentially home-made kit,  to send them home determined to make their own play.   We need that more than ever, as school drama erodes away or turns into therapeutic wokery.  So here there is puppetry (two characters turned into nice rabbits, and some wonderful animal characters on the island led by a speechifying pompous lion who made me suddenly remember the party conference season was on).  While swords fly magically through the air and shoes move on their own in the battle scene there are still moments of actorly deftness half-fooling us at the same time,  and a substantial, nimble ensemble make everything happen fast.   

         And there is real emotion too.  I thought Disneyfication would remove Mary Norton’s edge of postwar melancholy, but the last scenes become,  for a while,  properly tear-jerking as the kids accept that none of it happened outside their imagination,  the parents are still dead,  and they are three orphans alone in a strange and baffling place. The little girls in the row in front of me stiffened, fretful.   But reality came good: broomsticks and magical bedknobs are fine in their way, but adult kindness beats all.  The kids recognized that too.  

rating   four

box office

Touring to 1 May 2022. Next up Nottingham, Eastbourne

( in Christmas season Leeds , Southampton and Edinburgh get it!)


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       If you lived as an adult alongside the onset of AIDS forty years ago you don’t forget it: the lost friends and workmates , the rumours of ignorance which had the macabre horror of undertakers refusing corpses and (on our rural patch) the frightened small absurdities of people boycotting a local deli because the manager looked a bit camp and they might catch it off the salami.   We remember how remarkable it was when Diana and Liz Taylor strode in and held the hands of sufferers, and the particular terror of the way a diagnosis was understood to be terminal before antiretroviral drugs: one dark skin sarcoma spelling a death warrant.  We remember not only the vast shock and sorrow of  so many young men struck down, but  the homophobia:  the voices saying that homosexual acts were being punished by God or fate because its initial spread was in that free-living, newly self-conscious and celebratedly open gay culture.    

       Lately we have had it remembered in Angels in America , in the rather overpraised epic The Inheritance,  in revivals of My Night With Reg and the TV  portrait of London’s dismay and tragedy in It’s A Sin.  But this – Larry Kramer’s semi -autobiographical account of the foundation in his living room in New York of the Gay Men’s Health Centre – GMHC –  was the first of the AIDS plays. And it remains the most intelligent, moving and sometimes even humanely funniest of them all . The Olivier, sparsely set in the round and packed to the rafters, gives it everything it deserves:  nearly three hours fly by, considerably more gripping than the Bond movie with which I had  whiled away the afternoon. It raises echoes today: about the necessity and limitation of identity politics, about different approaches to activism, and simply about love.

     Ironically delayed by our newer pandemic , Dominic Cooke’s production expresses the strange and terrifying time through the eyes of Ned, the Kramer figure.  He is played with furious skinny vigour and explosive passion by Ben Daniels: every line of his body eloquent either in defiance (often of his own confreres),  or in the brief happy discovery of domestic love with Felix,  or in despair and grief. But around him every other figure has its private and distinct energy, flaring in turn, perfectly in tune and each illustrating the others.   Liz Carr as Dr Emma Brookner, herself a polio survivor,  is a tiny dynamo,  practically kindly and frustratedly enraged both by the horror of the degradings and dyings and by the speed of the spread being aggravated by the bathhouse culture.  “Tell gay men to stop having sex!” she pleads baldly from the start.  Ned protests that for them casual sex was a means of  connection, which becomes addiction, which becomes peer-pressure.   Though he himself, never yet in love as the play starts, comes to   deplore  the idea that “promiscuity is our political agenda” .  As a writer and reader, in passionate late outbursts he pleads for gay men to claim a proud cultural tradition from Plato to E.M.Forster and Alan Turing, and not constantly want to “be defined by our cocks”.    The complexity and torment of his nature is marvellously evoked in a great date scene, funny and touching and recognizable to anyone of any orientation whatsoever.  Felix (another wonderful performance by Dino Fetscher) speaks for relationships, and says Ned’s “making love” phrase is wrong because “we treat each other like whores”. Ned bridles nervously, rants politically, hears himself doing it, recovers…

         That clash about promiscuity is one of the many political and ideological questions deftly handled by Kramer through character.  The men’s meetings, either together in flat or phone-crazy office or in attempts to get Mayoral attention,  as Tommy Boatwright drily puts it,  suffer badly from “bereavement overload and a lot of styles which don’t quite mesh”.  Kramer himself, like Ned in the play, was edged out of his own movement because of his intemperate style.   Danny Lee Wynter’s Tommy (“I’m a Southern bitch!”) is  both wonderfully funny,  the campest of them all but also the most grounded,   deeply touching in his dogged loyalty to the project , and tenderness towards the vulnerable, exhausted Mickey (Daniel Monks) who  spends his days working at the health department writing advice about breastfeeding and herpes .  and his evenings doing newsletters about this far greater mortal danger which the public authorities  refuse to acknowledge or provide for.  Meanwhile, still in the closet yet chairman of the infant charity, Luke Norris is Bruce:   beautifully  balancing his bankerly, besuited dignity against the scruffy furiosity of Ned,  but relating his own lover’s undignified last moments in one of the play’s most wrenching speeches.     Ned’s straight elder brother Ben is Robert Bowman: and there’s another of the key, understated relationships of love and conflict which make the pattern of the play so deftly,  timelessly perfect.  And in this production, brilliantly displayed. 

Box office.  To 6. Nov

Rating. FIVE.    

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