Monthly Archives: November 2021

COME FROM AWAY   Phoenix WC1    REPRISE 

worth going again I say.. 

Just thought I should mention to theatrecat readers how wonderful this show it.  Saw it twice before the pandemic, nipped back to a matinee a week or so back.  To see if the human magic of it still holds.  It does

   It tells, with so gas and fiddles and stamping Celtic-Canadian vigour, the heartfelt and heartening true story of how the population of Gander in Newfoundland foibles in size over a few hours in 2001. It welcomed 33 shocked, frightened plane loads of travellers made to land at its normally quiet airport and stranded for days when US airspace was closed after the 9/11 attack.  If you didn’t catch it in London in those months before Covid hit, one’s the time.

    It stands tall, without pretension, above all the other familiar theatrical shoots sprouting up – and drawing crowds again, and ovations, and the odd tear. It remains a joy. It affirms, in its very particularity and eccentric local colour, the most immense and important generalities about humanity. The very fact that planes criss cross the globe bearing every class  and race  and temperament and religion all together and trustful in fragile metal tubes makes it universal.

      It is about fear and suspicion and suspense and bickering, kindness and bigotry demolishes, about  logistic inventiveness,  globalism and hometown. All at once. If you don’t shiver with a tear at the church scene, I pity you. Even more if the  wild fiddle tunes at the end and the exhausted triumphant grins of the big cast don’t get you on your feet. 

     If you can go, go. 

atgtickets.com      to 12 feb 2022

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MANOR Lyttelton, SE1

2021 BRITAIN IN A STATELY STORMY NUTSHELL

   Just what we needed, I thought!  A good old state-of-the-nation black comedy with a semi-derelict Manor in a howling storm,  the sea wall about to breach and motley strangers staggering in for shelter.  Very British. Even more so since their reluctant hostess is a titled chatelaine bewailing the uninsured ruin of the “wedding barn” which was going to pay off the debts, while  her more level-headed daughter points out that it wouldn’t have done anyway. Oh, and soon there’s a corpse on the kitchen table.  

     So sit back, eat a sneaky  Malteser, enjoy. Relish the theatricality, from ten vigorous performances to a glorious set by Lez Brotherston who has exploded the key elements of stately-homeliness into crooked slabs under a wild sky:  stained-glass windows, a vast staircase, a grand stone fireplace and a neatly sketched kitchen complete with Aga and corpse.  

       It’s no Ayckbourn though: Moira Buffini is attempting something more toughly topical: environmental disaster, a far-right upsurge, interracial unease, feminism.  This does mean that it’s a bit of a muddle, perhaps partly due to her characteristic glee in the absurdity of the ten characters. On the other hand, that lack of an earnest one-note direction makes it engrossing, often very funny, sympathetic.  Nancy Carroll is Diana, once a ’60s model who fell for a rising rock star, Pete (Owen McDonnell).  Now only their daughter Isis  likes him and he is off his head on magic mushrooms, brandishing a WW2 Lee Enfield  and lurching into druggy mysticism about creating art in the storm. Until he falls downstairs.  

     Cue sudden wet visitors:  a neat 57-Varieties of Brits. A stranded vicar  (David Hargreaves, master of innocent deadpan sweetness).has brought along the Ripleys:  Michele Austin as a black single mother, an A & E  nurse-practitioner attempting a quiet weekend in the country with a furious teenage daughter (Shaniqua Okwok, bare-tummied and wailing for WiFi).  Next come moody Ted and his sidekick Anton, reporting that their blind companion is still stuck in the flooded car;   to complete the fun, big hopeless Perry (Edward Judge, a master of hapless lovable comedy)  demands his meds from his waterlogged caravan.  “I’ve got blood pressure. And issues. And diabetes. And joints”.  He is pleased to meet Ted (Shaun Evans) because, like £5 millionsworth of crowdfunding fans,  Perry reads Ted’s “Albion” campaign website.  It’s all about restoring Britain to a land of strong men, warlike knights, empire, submissive women who are nonetheless noble “shieldmaidens” and lesser races kept in their place under strong authority.  

    It rapidly transpires that this fascist ideology stems from his lover, the blind academic, Ruth, who is brought in from the car with an unaccountable wound.  The comedy as she is tended with teeth-gritted professionalism by Nurse Ripley is beautifully handled, as is Ripley’s attempt to persuade her that as well as being a mad fascist she is an abused woman.  Indeed all the social nuances, rows and mutual dislikes are deftly done, with some great laughs. There are some overblown conversations about Buffini’s big basketful of issues, but great moments too:  as when Diana insouciantly goes to bed like any bored posh hostess, while in blankets round the fire  everyone else responds to an uncomfortable night  with degrees of resignation, self pity, selfishness, phlegm, or in Ted’s case a sudden ambition to make the manor  Albion  HQ .   

      He tempts the more vulnerable to his cause with the usual Mosleyish flapdoodle about strength and orderly joy, and gets some distance for a while with Diana as a “man of action”.  But he’s not quite convincing: Shaun Evans does his best but the character only comes together  very late on, when he moves from pound-shop Mephistopheles to panicking weasel. Never mind:  events keep coming,  up to a quite intense moment of temptation and decision and a proper apocalypse.   Which, frankly, is a bit  annoying because if ever a play needed a  third act (“The following day”), it is this.  

      But the very fact that I wanted more is evidence that I was enjoying it.  Carroll’s Diana is perfect,  Edward Judge blissfully funny in his moment of shoulders-back pride as one of the new “knights of Albion’,  Shaniqua Okwok as the nurse’s daughter a  powerhouse of youthful fury to watch.  They are all cast to a hair, though Evans not quite as fascinating as he should be,   and  Buffini is honourably evoking our age of cracking social bonds and baffled extremism.  That the gift of  truth might  reside in a drugged-up waster having a vision of time-and-space warps is one possible conclusion. Another is that wannabe fascist overlords become helpless cowering weasels in the face of love, solidarity, and a damn decent A&E nurse.

    It is in slight defiance that I give it the fourth mouse, because I had a great time.

Box office national theatre.org.Uk to 1 Jan 

Rating. 4.

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THE WIFE OF WILLESDEN Kiln, NW6

SIX CENTURIES ON,  IT’S GEOFFREY CHAUCER’S ROUND  

     Zadie Smith humbly refers to her first play as more like “homework” than the novelist’s usual dread of a blank page. Chaucer, after all, laid down its tale,  framework and attitudes 600 years ago with the Wife of Bath. She entertains fellow-pilgrims on the Canterbury road with a long personal prologue about her five husbands,  cheerful attitude to sex and clear-eyed view of male delusions.  And for those who have read Chaucer, probably long ago,  it is remarkable how close Smith stays both to the spirit and the stories in this deft and jolly modernization.   

      The rumbustious Clare Perkins in her tight red dress and Cockney-Jamaican patois may refer to wifi, buses , Jordan Peterson  and other pillars and plagues of modern life but she’s gloriously Chaucerian all the same.   Attitudes to clerics, St Paul, all male theoreticians and female prudes,  annoying husbands and – emphatically – a woman’s right to sexual pleasure are all there.  Especially the latter: if I was a man her line “Your body is my playground!”would set me trembling with nervous apprehension.  She’s a bit Donald McGill that way.   But it’s the intelligence, the witheringly female perception and realism, that are at the heart of the character.

          The setting is glorious.  She dominates a lovely, bottle-lined, patched-carpet London pub set by Robert Jones, conjuring up each husband, best-friend and pious auntie from the locals as she lays out her life story and robust views in the first hour,  and finally  in the last half hour turns the lot of them – carnival-costumed-  into the characters of the actual tale she tells.   It is the old one about the knight forced to wed a “loathly woman” who then becomes lovely,  transposed from King Arthur’s Court in Chaucer to 18c Jamaica with magnificently poetic patois. 

          This is, deliberately,  the Kiln’s joyful invitation to its local multicultural community to come back and come round to rejoice,  and I hope very much that a lot of it turns up, beyond this opening night’s theatre regulars.  It’s selling like mad, I hope to some big local groups with discounts,  but seats are always reasonable here and go down to £ 15 full-price:  and frankly, I’d go for the gallery or the back stalls anyway for a better view, and avoid the sides if you can’t get one of the pub tables.  It would be a pity to miss any of the pantomimic larking or have to keep standing up and craning as I did. 

       But wherever you are, it’s fun, and refreshingly faithful to the ancient larkiness of working-class England.  Among the ensemble with the wonderful Perkins I specially liked Ellen Thomas as Aunty P and the Old Wife, and Marcus Adolphy as, among other things, a black Jesus. Andrew Frame, as the lone straight-white-middle-class-male among her wives, is also shamelessly funny in his various humiliations. But they’re all great, and Indhu Rubasingham’s direction ( movement and fight directors have been painstakingly at work) is creative, fast and funny.  You get the sense that the fun they’re all having absolutely includes and invites you.  That means a lot.

Box office.  Kilntheatre.com. To 15 jan

Rating four

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VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE     Charing X Theatre, WC2

A CHEKHQUERED RESPONSE 

        Vanya and Sonia are siblings – though she is adopted – and have led dull dutiful lives in a remote country house surrounded by cherry trees and an orchard,  funded by a more successful city sibling,  Masha,  who is now coming to disrupt their weekend and tell them she plans to sell the house. Vanya meanwhile is writing an experimental play which will get nowhere.  Sonia reckons they have never really lived.  If you think you recognize a Chekhov set-up, you’re right and it’s deliberate: stiflingly so.   Openly, too, as the rural pair reminisce about their parents’ community-theatre obsession with the Russian playwright.

      It all feels very upmarket-sitcom, very laboured,  though brightens up a bit with the arrival of Masha,  who is the peerless Janie Dee at her most comically assured as a fearful and tactless diva five marriages down (“I”m beautiful, talented, charming, successful, why do they leave me?”). She is trailing a dumb boyfriend Spike (Charlie Maher) parodying every preening pop hunk ever, keen to get his shirt off and run round the auditorium in his pants to a supposed pond.   Masha is off to a costume party, where she will be Disney’s Snow White and the others are cast as the seven dwarfs in unbecoming costumes provided by her. 

     Only Sonia decides to be the Wicked Queen (‘as played by Maggie Smith”, instead) scrubs up, and opts to spend the party  (which occurs in the interval) talking in a nasally drawling Maggie Smith voice.  So far, so sitcom.Though Rebecca Lacey is very good in both the Maggie imitation and  – as the play finally develops – in expressing the real pain of a sense of empty forgotten life.

      Sometimes you go to a play which won an award, in this case a Tony, spend the first hour mystified by how this could have happened,  and find  the puzzle at last almost solved by a barnstorming second half.  Here, in particular, by a culminating rant delivered con amore and tempestuoso by Michael Maloney as Vanya.  Note to playwrights: leave us with a good memory and we forgive a dreary start. 

      Maloney, who had hitherto spent far too much of the play sitting on a wicker chair, often dressed as dwarf Grumpy, is provoked into a magnificent tirade against the callow dimbo Spike, who is texting rather than listening to his play.  “I worry about the future and I miss the past” he cries, yearning for the dutiful worthy dullness of a smalltown 1950s Main-Street-America when people licked stamps and posted letters,  and all wept together when Old Yeller the dog was shot.  He sets it against today’s vapid online frenzy, gnatlike attention span and toddler-accessible porn . It is rather  magnificent. It speaks for a generation,  even if they suspect (what with the racism and limitations of 1955) that it’s nonsense.      

      If Christopher Durang can write like this – and brilliantly conjure up the preceding emotional scene between two women, and the awful comedy of Vanya’s play voiced by a molecule in space –  If he can do all this, why waste so very much of our time in the first half,  strafing us with winkingly knowing Chekhov and Greek tragedy  references and random theatrebuff insiderism?  When a character mentions Pirandello some of us reach for an angry biro. And why, on top of that – introduce a semi-comic cleaning lady called Cassandra who – though doughtily played by Sara Powell – repeatedly delivers pointless and pretentious prophecies of doom just to justify her name? In the second half this maid proves to have supernatural powers for a few minutes, and so wearied by theatrical-literary references was I that I immediately thought “ah, Blithe Spirit”.  That’s how damaged you can be by extreme self-referentialism in theatre.

     But I wasn’t sorry I went, and this theatre is often the best value in the West End (alongside the dear Jermyn),  and it’s never a waste of time watching Dee, Maloney, and Lacey.     

Box office. Charingcrosstheatre.co.uk. To 8 Jan

Rating 3 

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LA CLIQUE Leicester Square Spiegeltent

      

ROLL UP! IT’S BACK!

Ah, Christmastime!   There’s nothing like a buff chap in spike-heeled patent thigh-boots somersaulting in the air to make you feel festive. Unless it’s a fire-eater in a glittery orange bikini, or a bloke dressed as a hotel bellboy who has painstakingly developed the rareified skill of chaning his entire outfit to formalwear while balancing on one arm on a pile of suitcases.

 La Clique, international circus-cabaret from newly liberated Australia, is on its fifth year in a  Leicester Square Spiegeltent after many an incarnation across the world, and the setting in the Christmas market absolutely suits it. We were  merrily inclined from the start, what with the fairylights and gingerbread,  and this year’s acts (visibly and glowingly delighted to be on the road again) are as beguiling as ever.    MC  is Bernie Deiter, a Weimaresque German-Australian  jazz chanteuse in a series of gloriously mad glittersome costumes (what is it with cabaret people and tartan?). She movingly tells us at the end how she was locked down in Melbourne for fourteen months, no work ot tours, and that they’re all thrilled to be back on the road.    Roars of joy from the crowded floor.  That sense of performers grateful to be back and appreciating audiences has been strong this autumn in concerts and plays alike; never felt anything quite like it.
     La Clique’s  performers are always quality, from several continents; :   top acrobatics, and the deathless Skating Willers (third generation incarnation)  turn up again this year with terrifying near-death whirling. But  it’s the unexpected acts which are is the joy of La Clique’s mix. Some are classic: Heather Holliday sword-swallows (can’t watch!sorry! especially the curved scimitar, that’s new to mr and just too inadvisable) but she also fire-eats , with spectacular humour and skill.   And the highlights were surprises.  Craig Reid,  The Incredible Hula Boy fresh from Vegas, is all beer-belly, lederhosen and pretzel-throwing in a whirling tangle of hoops (used to be a computer programmer, he says).  His hula act is great fun in the first half,  but in the second  the vaudeville classic quick-change tube-act with Mirko Kockenberger (elsewhere a dazzling acrobat) is pure joy, as witty as it is bafflingly skilled..   So is J”Aimime, who does a lovely variety-classic one-as-two ballroom dance act, with a jacket and hat on a stick. It has a very topical MeToo conclusion as her invisible partner actually gets her shiny dress off.  But her other act, described by her as “Balloon eats awkward blonde girl” was brand new to me, and glorious. I have no idea what magical fabric that balloon must be made of, and still don’t quite believe what happened.   But we were all just credulously gleeful by then; abd as we all were punch-drunk near the end, there was  a most extraordinary ,rackety musical parade round the tent by Leo P,  the pink haired saxophonist from Pennsylvania.  His twerking moves make the young Mick Jagger look like an arthritic Benedictine. , and Jagger only had to strum, not blow. The lad’s lungs must be phenomenal.  Ah, go on, mice! give them the Christmas cheese…

Box office lacliquetheshow.com to 8 Jan

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STRAIGHT WHITE MEN.       Southwark Playhouse, SE1

A HUMAN ZOO OF ALPHA MEN

There are good plays to be written about white male privilege, and about modern capitalism and its relentless expectation of self-promotion and constant advancement at the expense of sanity and morality.  There is also always room for more plays  about adult siblings reverting to childhood resentments.  This one, by Young Jean Lee  – reportedly the first Asian-American woman to have had a play on Broadway – has a fair tilt at all the above, but it left me a bit frustrated.   

        There’s  some banging rap music as we settle, and a nicely sly introduction by two nightclub-glitzy figures, of whom more later: they, not white at all, and in one case definitely a ‘her’ pronoun, are billed as “Person In Charge”,  curating as a show or zoo the performance of the eponymous white men.  This takes place in the Christmas-stockings, workaday home of widowed Ed (Simon Rouse) who has got his three sons round for the festive days. Well, Matt the eldest lives with him at the moment, very housewifely in his ways, and divorced banker Jake and youngest bro Drew have breezed in for the three days of Christmas. So far, so Ayckbournian – as the teasing persons-in-charge say,  that format is the straight white male of theatre. 

     The young men’s relationship seems based heavily on extreme banter, teasing, wrestling and – though not for long enough, because it’s interesting – getting out an adapted family Monopoly set reorganised as Priviege-checking. . For they are all well schooled in white male privilege and its guilts by their late mother, and none of them really knows what to do about it. Matt (a performance of finely judged benignly depressed helplessness by Charlie Condou)  actually says this in a late line – that he “doesn’t know what the answer is or whether  there is an answer”. 

       He is living at home, doing volunteer work and part-time, saying he “just wants to be useful” and that it isn’t political.  The pivot incident of the play (too much of which is taken up by the really annoying bro-banter of the others) is when Matt bursts into tears at a meal and the others don’t quite get why.  But it leads to the point of the piece.   Jake  (a vigorous Alex Mugnaioni),  is ashamed that in his company he knows he deliberately doesn’t bring on women or interns of colour  to client meetings,   even though his own kids by his estranged wife are mixed race.  He praises Matt because he thinks  his brother is being virtuous, doing the right thing,  because he’s a white male getting out of the way to leave success to the less privileged. 

       Matt denies this and clearly is mainly depressed. His question “why do I have to have a career?’ Makes everyone  annoyed, including Dad Ed who finds it “repugnant” that he doesnt want to make anything of himself. The idea that Matt might be a loser for no political or ethical reason enrages Jake.   Which is interesting,  but leads nowhere much. 

       The frustration for me was how little use was made of the nice device of book-ending it with the non-SWM characters.  Kamari Romeo and Kim Tatum, both in nightclub gear, glittery-slinky-sexy, one Zambian-American one Polish-Jewish-African-American (I think I caught that).  All very LGBTQ+++, gay-leatherwork-harness and, spikes in hair, much glitter:   ineffably charming both of them.  But they vanish after  the start and appear at the end briefly, meanwhile  only turning up once in a silent sequence where they fill a binbag with various things of no notable value, including a rainbow flag.  

      I really would like more of them:  they could have popped in once or twice to take the mick out of these men,  or at least roll their eyes a bit at some of the annoying bro-banter.   They could have  pointed out, for example, when the brothers start dancing (to banging rap of course,and a  female vocalist) that it is pure cultural appropriation.   As in any club night full of cool white kids, all the moves are shamelessly pinched off black street-dance.  

       It’s just one of the jokes – and we do need jokes around this subject- which the play doesn’t have enough fun with.  Condou is a real treat, though, wish we saw more of him.  And as with so many Southwark productions, worth it. 

Southwarkplayhouse.co.uk     To 4 Dec. 

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PRIVATE LIVES Touring, Chichester next

THEY DO NOT GROW OLD AS WE IN THE STALLS GROW OLD

     

May as well tell you,  last week I had the ultimate pensioner experience, and it was a blast.   A midweek, senior-price matinee in staid Richmond for the new touring production of Private Lives (no idea when press night might be is for Christopher Luscombe’s long delayed production,  it’s been to Bath already anyway.   I just bought tickets for curiosity).

          The curiosity was because Nigel Havers and Patricia Hodge are more than double the age Coward wrote Elyot and Amanda to be: 70 and 75.   That is getting on, even these days, for a runaway  romance with old flames, abandoning two new spouses in a Deauville hotel on their honeymoon and subsequently breaking things over one another’s heads in a Paris hideaway. 

        But goodness, it works.  Pensioners ain’t what they used to be, as the matinee  audience absolutely knew,  and there was much chortling at every bicker and making-up.    Love is love at any age, but we all fell  about with a particular glee at the gloriously recognisable way that when Amanda turns down Elyot’s lovemaking on the sofa on the grounds that they’ve had a heavy meal,   he gets up miffed but is caught by a sudden leg cramp. The only flaw is that the “five years” separation in the text ought to be rewritten , with the Coward Estate’s permission, as twenty five . Just for realism. Otherwise the fact is that play fits the quarrelsome exasperated affections of middle age quite perfectly..

       Of course both players are sharp and  brilliant comedians. Havers gets a roar of applause on his first balcony appearance, probably because way beyond the stage he is beloved for his stellar performance as the octogenarian Audrey’s dodgy paramour in Coronation Street.     But he always gives good cad-and-charmer, and here he is glorious:   from the first panicky twitch of his smart blazer when he spots Amanda on the next balcony,  to a peerless demonstration of how to eat a brioche with maximum  impertinence in the final scene.    And Hodge is his equal. She does look near to her age (well, to the most impossibly-chic versiont of it)  but in her striped pyjamas is sexier than many a younger women in her devil-may-care recklessness. And the pair achieve the fight, the smashing of a record over his head,  and the lounging and the reconciling. All done magnificently, lithe as well-preserved panthers. It’s a joy, sparking Oohs and aahs and giggles and barks of laughter all the way. Matinee idols both. Respect. 

         One thought did wistfully come to me  in the first scene. Simon Higlett’s design is fabulous – especially the Paris flat, very arty-twenties – but in the first scene there are two other  hotel balconies, looking functional,  above the principals’ ones. I sort of wanted another pair of couples – maybe their far younger selves – to appear ghostlike up there,   maybe even speak an amazed line or two, meta-style, about how strange and wonderful it is that we all grow old yet never change…

rating four

Touring: Chichester on Tuesday,  then onward till 23 April    www.noelcoward.com for details

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BOBBY AND AMY               Seagull Lowestoft, touring on

TWENTY YEARS AGO, ANOTHER HEALTH CRISIS CHANGED LIVES

  

Just before the pandemic closed everything down, Emily Jenkins’ deft two-hander  won a top Edinburgh Fringe award and many plaudits.    It took us back two decades  to the 2001 foot-and-mouth crisis:  six million mainly healthy cows were shot and burnt on pyres, the army had to be called in;  family farms, traditions and carefully bred herds were ruined,  eight billion lost to the economy,  footpaths and whole areas fenced off to the public.  

        It is interesting to be taken back to  memories of that time, in the aftermath of our own human health crisis: you can draw private parallels about poor planning, slow response and authoritarian government enforcement creating a sense of unease in communities normally happy to look inward and get on with their lives. 

     Kimberly Jarvis and Will Howard play 21 parts,  at the centre of it being two teenagers in an unnamed small town in the Cotswolds.   He is an oddball – probably living with a degree of Aspergers, obsessed with counting and finding safety in facts.  They are friends, hanging out together round an old folly tower in the fields,  both with difficult family situations.   Vocally and physically they evoke a whole town:  an angry father, a weary mother with a troubling new partner a bit too keen on Amy,  local bullies, a pharmacist, a helplessly blustering council official and – importantly – a local farmer who gives them a ride on his tractor and lets them watch the difficult birth and survival of a calf in the barn.  Amy takes the farmer’s voice and hauls the calf clear:  Bobby, rigid with nervous fear,  strokes  the invisible cow’s nose, calming her, and when the calf coughs into life,  names it Abigail.   All this is finely evoked in the empty black-box setting: classic fringe skills from both performers.  

     So that when the fences go up,  and the government orders, and the terrible fire where they glimpse skulls, eyes, faces, Abigail, her mother –  the shock is considerable to all of us.  And the words “Something inside us has shrunk” are met with still, attentive horror.    And of course the farm will be sold. And houses built on the green land, and “holiday home” signs up, and Range Rovers, and their world has ended, and the farmer’s tragedy is completed. 

         But during the time of change the teenagers protest occupying the old folly,  naive and simple-hearted,  the misery of it all alleviated by the support of the town who, again rather wonderfully,  the two of them evoke from their eyrie.    And time goes by, and we glimpse their new  evolving near-adult world. 

       Because Jenkins’ intention is not to leave us all miserable, but to remind us in 75 minutes of a crisis, a neglected community suffereing its impact,  and the way that in the end, we all have to carry on.   If it comes your way, give it that hour or so. 

box office    bobbyandamy.co.uk      TOURING to  27 November:  dates left are 

    Artsdepot tonight, then Harlow, IoW, Tonbridge, Folkestone, Farnham, Colchester, Wells next the Sea, Swindon

rating four 

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TOP HAT The Mill at Sonning

FACE THE MUSIC, AND DANCE!

      

This was a new outing for me.    I have long loved the Watermill some miles west,  but I hadn’t really registered the Mill at Sonning with it’s even bigger – and working, and electricity-providing –  waterwheel ,  roomy ancient bar and elegant semicircular auditorium with perfect sightlines everywhere.  It makes you wish there were even more theatres in old watermills: they’re obviously ideal for it. 

     Anyway, several reports had assured me that Irving Berlin’s Top Hat was being given all it needs, out there by the Thames banks, not least top quality tapdancing.   They were right. This is the frothiest,  most absurd of the golden-age film musicals (everyone’s FredAstaire-way to movie heaven).  It is a gorgeous wisecracking nonsense ,  with a plot based on a single improbable misunderstanding spun into absurdity gold.   Kenny Wax got the rights to do it on stage in 2011, whence it toured the UK with extra Irving Berlin songs and duly hauled in Oliviers at the Aldwych.  

     But how does it do on a smaller scale?   Excellently,   not least because the extraordinary percussive mass tap-sessions are  even more exciting right up close;   and there is something almost pheromonally stimulating about being in the actual room,  not at all far from the energetic, impossible athleticism of top dancers. Whether hard tap, soft shuffle or ballroom it has  dizzying, hypnotic effect on everyone, as witnessed in a certain amount of scampering and attempts to shuffle in the gravel on the way to the car park.  Well, in my case anyway.

      Jack Butterworth is a light-footed whirl of mischief as Jerry Travers,  Billie Kaye just the right foil for him, both of their looks pleasingly in period (Jason Denvir’s set is wonderful Art Deco,  and ingeniously turns the backdrop and cramped wings into a Broadway stage, a park, two elegant hotel rooms with big beds and the Venice Lido) . Tiffany Graves and Paul Kemble are irresistible as the put-upon producer Horace and his cool sarcastic wife Madge,  bringing the house down with their big late number about hating each other (“Outside of that, I love you!”).  Delme Thomas is suitably ridiculous as a cartoon Italian dress designer in snow-white spats, Brendan Cull suitably weird as Bates the Valet,  and Charlie Booker,  making a professional debut among the fantastic fast-moving ensemble,  gets a special camp moment of his own. 

       Actually, one of the pleasures of this daft piece is that so many performers do get their high moment,  as well as the four principals.   And of course the vaudeville-level wisecracking crosstalk is vital. Magnificently terrible 1935 jokes:   I had completely forgotten that gag “You don’t know what it means to come home to a woman who’ll show you a little love a little tenderness.  It means you’re in the wrong house”.  Beautifully delivered: we all barked delightedly.  

       Jonathan O”Boyle directs with speed and elegance,  and Ashley Nottingham’s choreography is a marvel.  Well, show-dancers close up are a marvel anyway.    To make it all still jollier, for a proper night out under the ancient beams  the £69  ticket includes a two course buffet dinner (top steak and ale pie!) . I have rather taken to the Mill at Sonning, and am very glad its angels and the Covid Recovery Fund mean it’s still here.  A Christmas treat. 

 Box office  millatsonning.com    to 8 Jan (wisely having a Christmas break, though, so get booking)

rating four  

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SIX Vaudeville, WC2

Reprise: they’re still at it, as good as ever

     If I were a PR for the Society of London Theatres,  I would get these six performers together for a photocall with the five from Pride and Prejudice (sort of), and announce them as the female first-eleven of London theatre.  Sisters are doing it for themselves, all right. And both shows are a delight.

   SIX of course has been around ever since in 2017 a couple of students – Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss – for an Edinburgh fringe joke decided to give voices to the wives of Henry VIII, as if they had in the afterlife formed a Spice-girls style band and were competing for who had the roughest time with old Henry.  They will tell you in the programme that it was all about the authors’ “individual journeys discovering the discourse surrounding gender”, and that it’s aim is giving female historical figures a voice and drawing parallels with today, through use of the pop- concert genre.

    All valid and pleasingly millennial, though wise to put that stuff in the programme rather than the advertising.  Because the actual experience of this “historye-mix” is a gig: a pop-rock-ballad-techno explosion of highly-lit, rackety, jokey, booty-shaking in Tudor-inspired hotpant-and-hi-thigh slutwear and fishnets (hell of a leg show), with the odd dash of neon and a lot of sparkles.  It’s brilliant.  And goodness, it’s clever: daft rhymes like “tried to elope, but the Pope said nope” and “my loyalty is to the Vatican, try to dump me and you won’t try that again”, and plenty of high-spirited bitching,   but also slyly-inserted historical edges about everything from  the dissolution of the monasteries to Katherine Parr’s campaign for the education of women. 

    The music is well-paced: rackety numbers like Boleyn’s followed by the poignant love song of poor Jane Seymour so the audience can breathe a bit.  And in this incarnation, its second West End theatre since the post-pandemic revival, the casting is – like everything else – well thought out.  They’re all great singers and movers, but gorgeously diverse in physical type and character. Courtney Bowman is a mischievous worst-girl-in-the-school delight as Boleyn, constantly pulling rank because beheading scores higher than divorce or “ordinary death”;  Jane Seymour is given a romantic grace by Natalie Paris,  and as for the superb Anne of Cleves created by Alexia McIntosh, words fail me.  She’s glorious, furious at being dissed after the Haus of Holbein (a great chorus) creates a Tudor Tinder-profile,but gleeful at being pensioned off without a “wheezy wreck 24 years older” to boss her about. She towers over tiny Katherine Howard (Sophie Isaacs), a determined sexpot whose comeuppance is surprisingly moving;  and Catherine Parr rounds off the six with dignity before they all decide that women shouldn’t just fight among themselves and  in the end they win, because they’re a lot more famous than any other royal wives.   

       It is, in its return to the West End, yet again an utter triumph. And frankly, after a wasted afternoon watching the film SPENCER,  where a lachrymose and hopeless Diana is haunted by a rather less entertaining Ann Boleyn,  it redeemed my day entirely..

Box office.    Sixthemusical.com.     Booking pretty much forever

Rating. Still 5 royal mice.   

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THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE    Duke of York’s Theatre

 

THE MYTH AND  TERROR THAT CHILDREN KNOW 

  

     Sometimes a violent rip occurs in the thin veil of materialism ,commonsense, morality and law.    Children know this: a bereavement, a glimpse of a corpse you must be forbidden to look at again, an adult who beneath a smiling face is a chaos of filthy rags and crawling horrors.   Down the centuries storytellers and mystics and believers in the demonic have woven these terrors into stories and rituals.   Fun is made of it all at Halloween, and decorous solemnity calms it in the prayer of quiet evensongs. But it’s always there.   In a theatre, even a cherub-gilded playhouse, the sense of it can be released in sound and spectacle, clouds and crashes and half-seen giant batwings, set against the clash of homely reality.

      And here it all is.  I came to it cold, Neil Gaiman’s play (adapted by Joel Horwood) having  passed me by in the Dorfman just before lockdown. And coming to it cold has advantages: it is a story about children, and to some extent for them (though I wouldn’t take the youngest: they need to be of Narnia or Pullman age to be confronted by complex terrors and bereavements and take a story for what it is. The hero, James Bamford (a Cursed Child Potter veteran), convincingly plays a twelve year old . He has not only lost his mother without helpful talk about it by his frazzled father, but is alarmingly confronted with the darkest of adult mysteries when the lodger takes the family car and uses it to kill himself after, it seems, a financial disaster.  Wandering out to a duck pond down the lane he learns from a confidently cheerful young farm girl, Nia Towle as Lettie,  that it is an ocean. A strange coin is found a fish (50p not a sovereign, for the solidity of Gaiman’s myth throughout is in the mundane details). Lettie warns him that it may be a sign that the sudden death nearby has “woken up” something forever lurking, predatory and evil, on the edge of their reality…

    So the playmates , with her as experienced leader and mistress of ritual, head through thickets (wonderfully evoked by stage managers who also whisk furniture in and out, it’s a fast moving show). And they meet It:  the dreadful Something, unnameable except as “flea”.   And it is shatteringly terrifying, a vastness of ragged skeletal  wings and sticks and beak, in dim light, dark puppeteers part of it and its terror. Lettie can “bind it” but not destroy.   Later the pterodactylesque black spirits of hunger summoned to attack it are even more alarming,  and I am a grownup with a notebook but my heart hammered.  Worse still, IT can shape-shift and be a person, a smiling new family member.  Laura Rogers.  Lettie has power – whoever or whatever she is, possibly nothing at all, possibly one of a witchy trinity led by Penny Layden as a serenely powerful farm grandmother .   And the nightmare, or breakdown, or serious spiritual crisis, which the boy undergoes is real – as the old woman says “truer than any hard facts in this universe”.  And it is on a level more fearsome than any Narnian or Tolkienesque or Carroll tale.

      Some make simplistic metaphors about adolescence, puberty, bereavement, teenage mental health.   Not me.  I loved it because it is a new retelling of the most ancient of true legends,  the shivering courage that confronts supernatural evil.   And, of course, because the puppetry and ocean-waves are magnificently done:  a bow to director Katy Rudd, and to  Fly Davis and  Samuel Wyer, and the movement director Steven Hogget. They all earn the extra design-mouse below.

www.atgtickets.com    booking to 14 May

rating four and a set-mouse

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INDECENT PROPOSAL Southwark Playhouse, SE1

COULD YOU? WOULD YOU? FOR A MILLION BUCKS?

Here’s a struggling young couple (well, not that young,  both on second marriages and he has a daughter going to college). Along comes a billionaire, offering a million dollars for the wife to spend one night with him. Will they or won’t they, and what will it do to them? The film, from Jack Engelhard’s novel, rather confused the morality of some of us in the late  80s, n because the rich exploiter was Robert Redford , and even the blokes fancied him more than the drippy husband. 
       So there was an existing curiosity for me about what Michael Conley (book and lyrics) and composer Dylan Schlosberg, would make of it as a chamber musical.And  Southwark is always worth a punt.  And designer Anna Kelsey has set Charlotte Weatenra’s production in a beautifully seedy nightspot: the Ruckus Room In an awful casino resort in Atlantic City under a washed up compère-chanteuse Annie. Who frankly steals the show because she is Jacqueline Dankworth and a great credit to her parents. So atmospheric is that set hat you can almost smell the stale beer , vomit,testosterone, gambler-panic  and disinfectant.  

    So far so good. But one problem is that the music , absolutely right for the seedy, mawkish plasticky  setting, never rises to express the reality of emotions as it needs to in a musical.  Norman Bowman and Lizzy Connolly do their best as the couple, and she has some good low-key numbers alone in her bathroom, offering the best example of singing through cold- cream and eyeshadow remover you’ll see this year.  But the weakness of the early scenes means it’s  hard to believe in their relationship,   and the few zingers in the script rarely fall to the lot of the supposed stars. The best indeed are from Larry the rich tempter – a suave Ako Mitchell. Notably when, late on, the sacked old Annie in her spangly jacket drily asks “Any advice for an older woman who’s broke and unemployed?”. “Yes” he replies. “Don’t be any of those things”.  Ouch. 


       A puzzle for me is that nothing is made of the fact that in this casting Larry is black and the couple white. Which normally would be unremarkable race-blind casting but…this is Atlantic City, not unknown for racial tension, either in the past or right now with BLM demonstations . And in the original novel (an aspect ignored by the film) the husband is Jewish, and the billionaire predator Arab.  

   Yes, using that extra edge even subtly  would have made it a different show, but certainly a grittier and more satisfying one. As it is , all we have is the disintegration of a not very lovable couple’s relationship, and a few good lines about the sovereign power of money. But it is a reminder that I want to see a lot more of Ako Mitchell in big roles.  He deploys an excellently judged flatness in his most outrageous lines: so when he pleasantly says to the husband after buying his big night: “It was nice doing business with you”, hairs stand up on the back of your neck.

It’s unusual for any peace loving woman like me to want to see someone punched in the face, and to struggle with your own affront when it doesn’t happen…

 Box office  southwarkplayhouse.co.uk. To 27 nov
Rating three

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PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (SORT OF) Criterion, WC1

UNIVERSALLY ACKNOWLEDGED TO BE A HOOT

         It had to happen: someone had to notice that in the comfortable upper-middle and aristocratic worlds of Jane Austen’s novel,  nothing could happen without the servants:  cleaning up, cooking, delivering emotional notes between country houses in the mud,  refilling glasses. Yet they are rarely mentioned.   So here, even before the start,  five maids in white shifts bustle about, informing us with salty broad-spoken vigour in their various accents (Lizzie Bennett’s Newry brogue could cut granite) that it’s their turn.   This time THEY will relate the love affairs and frustrations of the Bennett, Bingley and Darcy families.

       Assisted by lightning costume adjustments and a scornful shrug at the superficial matter of gender, they do the lot, from a sternly stiff Darcy to desperate Mary interpreted as an explosion of pink ruffles and affronted specs.  And,  Georgian repression being what it was, they kindly explain that it will sometimes be necessary to release feelings in song.  Anything from The Shirelles to Carly Simon and – in a moment of wicked joy –  there’s a blast of Lady In Red. Because, obviously,  the immensely scarlet-ruffled Lady Catherine de Burgh had a nephew, Chris de Burgh…

       And if we had never before imagined Elizabeth Bennett swigging from the bottle or having a fag with Mr Wickham out by the wheeliebins (the “AUST-BIN”, neatly marked),  well, that is simply a failure of our imagination.  Because the point, being made with every kind of merriment,  is that Austen’s characters may have lived in another society but are, in their yearnings and frustrations and tempers and subterfuges and misunderstandings,  exactly like us. And that had it been available, they might well have assuaged the pangs of lost love by eating Frosties straight from the packet. 

     This magnificent Glasgow-born romp by a group of five women may present itself as an impertinent lark, Jane Austen irreverently reworked in terms of karaoke and caricature, but actually it is a wiser and more skilful take on the story than most of the film and TV versions.  It also has a grand pedigree in the world of innovative, clever but highly accessible theatre. The writer, performer and co-director Isobel McArthur,  alongside the well-hefted troupe of  Tori Burgess, Christina Gordon, Hannah Jarrett-Scott and Meghan Tyler, were noticed and championed in Scotland by David Greig, in Bristol by Tom Morris and now in the West End  by the producer David Pugh.   This is a  polished version, elegantly set under a chandelier and a vast sweeping staircase whose underside is made of books,  but it retains the cheeky pub-theatre sense which sends audiences into helpless barking laughter and even (when poor Darcy is turned down first time) into more than one sad pitying “Aawwww!” .  

        It is also remarkably faithful to the original text,  for all the servants’ larking and wandering in and out to make points with random musical instruments.  We have small details like Mrs Bennett’s stratagem to get Jane a bed at Netherfield by sending her by horse (a lifesize model one, even) and the intricate conversation about accomplishments which first gets Darcy interested in Elizabeth’s mind.   Nor had I ever noticed the likelihood that Charlotte Lucas would deeply prefer a romantic relationship with her friend, who sadly never notices.  And I am entirely convinced by the probability that Lydia would borrow a long-barrelled pistol off one of her militia flirts to “have a go”, and bring down the chandelier.  And when they do diverge most startlingly from the text it is only to affirm, for us in 2021, its essential truths.   When Lizzie at last bursts out to Darcy “I’m sorry I told everyone you were a twat!”she may be paraphrasing,  but the truth is there.  

      It’s very funny,  a tribute both to Jane Austen and to the way that British theatre can, at the dog-end of a pandemic, fill a playhouse with something fresh, unexpected, and joyful. 

Box office. Criterion-theatre.co.uk     To 13 Feb

Rating. Five

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