Monthly Archives: December 2021


PLAGUE YEAR Part 2  –   2021

 Below, if you care to scroll ,  I chronicled the shows that met my return from chemo-then-lockdown in 2020.   An enfeebled theatrical year.   Today a longer list and reflection pays tribute to 2021,  and tributes are deserved.   In  the months from May to December it was, once again, possible to see live shows and review them in London and across the country :  for me Birmingham, Sonning,  Lowestoft, Ipswich, Norwich, Colchester, Northampton and elsewhere.

      Audiences came back, often surprising wary producers with their enthusiasm.  Some were, and still are, nervous of  the illness itself, and certainly of the danger of a pinged issolation.  The Omicron variant, easy to catch and often slight, has closed a lot of shows and suspended others, which is economically a disaster.  But theatre has rolled on, brave and risky and loyal to itself and its people.   And  despite  repeatedly joining  masked, unmasked and half-masked audiences  and travelling by train and tube and bus,  I have to say I didn’t catch it.  Ventilation and care kept us safe.  What felled me in the end was just a social yacht-club dinner in Essex, with its accompanying stand-and-shout cocktail bit in a lousy acoustic. 

    On the whole, I was safest in theatres…

    So here are the figures.  Saw 60 shows during the year, two of them twice.   Paid own ticket for 26 of them rather than accept press seats, given the financial peril they face.  19 were revivals  in fresh productions;  nine were ongoing “returners”  from before the pandemic like Come from Away and SIx.  But a stonking 30 – half the total – were brand new!    To them goes  a particular congratulation.  

   REVIVALS in new production:

  A glorious Peggy For You at Hampstead is the most recent,  welcome back after years with Tamsin Greig note-perfect.  Shakespeare was served well, terrifyingly well,  in the Almeida’s Macbeth;  and  on a tinier scale the Jermyn’s Tempest was fascinating, sparking new thoughts about the play despite its apparent classicism.   Also there, it was a revelation to see Ayckbourn’s familiar Relatively Speaking at cosy close-quarters, as if you were in their front garden. 

        Oleanna at the Arts was as startling as ever in a year of cancellations and MeToo scandals;  Straight White Men was an  intriguing oddity at the Southwark,  new to the UK;  also new imports were Indecent, a remarkable evening at the Menier,  and the very peculiar, but gripping, White Noise at the Bridge.  

         To see Private Lives on tour, performed cheekily by two septuagenarians gave the bickering a surprisingly new feeling. As the NT, finally creaked back to life,  the Normal Heart was a period-piece of interest, and  Under Milk Wood was movingly  – and topically – set in a care home. 

         Other revival memories cluster around the big musicals:  Anything Goes, now streaming on BBCiPlayer, with the unbelievable Sutton Foster tapping like a fiend and singing like an angel.   Top Hat at the Mill at Sonning was my introduction to that unusual and glorious building.  And the return of Singing in the Rain had a particular poignancy, unintended, when we heard that that remarkable Adam Cooper had, during lockdowns, actually been reduced to Universal Credit and trying to get van driving jobs.  

and so to the new ones….new shows, born in adversity


  What can I say, beyond expressing awe?  That new work flourished and was put out there,  always at risk of sudden closure in pingdemic or government diktat,  is a tribute to the art and the people who practise it, onstage and off and crossing their fingers and praying in the back office.   

    We have rounded the year with James Graham’s Best of Enemies (about to start streaming from the 22nd, well worth it if you didn’t get in).  There was the pubby, riotous Wife of Willesden reaching out to Kilburn through Chaucer;  among the big shows  there was Lloyd-Webber’s long awaited and impressively rotating Cinderella,   and Frozen for the kids,  howing “Let it go!” in extraordinary icescapes.  There was a lovely, touching, funny  Bach and Sons at the Bridge, out of which we drifted dreamily on opening night to find ourselves in the middle of a raucous festival of football in the park outside.  I immediately bought tickets to go back again, with my husband; whereon it closed;  so I went later still with a friend.

       The third part of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell epic, The Mirror and the Light,  opened for less time than it should have;  nor was it quite as good as the  first two Mike Poulton adaptations, which shows you can’t always trust a novelist to make theatre come to life.    Manor, at the NT,  got monstered good and proper by all the critics except me because to be honest I rather enjoyed the quite broad acting, the scenery, and the sense of a gallant attempt to squash together a number of fashionable issues and not quite getting there.   It was genuinely not as bad as a lot of critics joyfully said….

      Whereas Rockets and Blue Lights, in the Dorfman, was really awful, and pretentious with it.  But I bought a ticket and gave it a chance.  And refrained from writing about it because I don’t drown kittens.   

      I never got to Yorkshire this year,  but some new plays demand urgently to  be seen if you can get there at all, and Northampton has weighed in brilliantly with Gin Craze:  depicting an 18c rather different to the  Jacob Rees-Mogg ideal.  The brand new musical Bedknobs and Broomsticks flew round the country, and was unpretentious, ingenious fun.  Down at Greenwich  Into Battle was a debut play, a labour of love throwing fascinating light on the WW1 generation of posh wasters who finally gave their all in the trenches.  At the Bridge,  the doughty atheist Pullman had his Book of Dust and the Herodish pursuit of a sacred baby  brought to life by Nicholas Hytner and the best ever projections creating rivers at our feet.   Ralph Fiennes pinned us to our seats with philosophical, spiritual intensity in his rendering of the Four Quartets.  

       Tiny houses sprouted demotic, quirky small plays:  Ipswich taxi-drivers were depicted in Our White Skoda Octavia,   Bobby and Amy recreated an earlier terrible epidemic in Lowestoft community theatre;   a ridiculous but gripping OPeration Mincemeat hit the dear Southwark (which later opened, and had to close,  Rhythmics, a mini musical which will definitely be back.)    The Park Theatre offered a first rough showing of the rock musical Tony Blair,  courtesy of Harry Hill.  And downstairs at Hampstead  there was Raya,  a remarkable tight little play, and Tom Wells back with Big Big Sky, as moving and real an evocation of his (and my) east coast than  ever.  

       Pride and Prejudice sort-of   was more than a sort-of delight,  and kept its tickets reasonable, unlike many West End houses.   The absence of the horrible crass racist Book of Mormon left space open for the gloriously cheeky  Windsors,  with Harry Enfield and the wittiest curtain-call ever (we had to stand and bow to the cast instead, while they just waved).  Arthur Smith roamed the land remembering his Dad  in Syd, and we found him in Colchester;  the Grenfell Inquiry and the  shocking shortcomings of “Value engineering” came to the  stage under the aegis of Nicholas Kent, master of important verbatim.   

         So there was old and new, reinterpreting and inventing,  playing and creating and believing and hoping and watching and moving hearts.  Theatre rose again. As I write, it is in danger still.  Support it, celebrate it,  let it shine. 



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REVIEW OF TWO PLAGUE YEARS,    2020-2021 Part 1


    I set out,  in this eerie Twixtmas gap,  to chronicle and celebrate the return of live theatre since May 2021.  And this will follow.  But when I totted up the 2021 score – sixty theatre nights,  30 being completely new  plays and 19 brand-new productions – it seemed to me only decent to pause, look back at the year before, and remember first how sad, how scrimpingly poor was live theatre after I returned to it in March 2020 after six months’ sequestration on chemotherapy.  The last treatment coincided with Day 1 of lockdown.   The frustration was proportionally greater…

           Theatrecat, for reasons of private principle, did not review ‘streamed’ shows,  bar one particularly valiant local effort, because it felt wrong to approach them in the same way one does after a journey to a theatre, sharing the same air as the players.    So there are gaps in this site:    t was September  before things flared into brief brave life.

          Alan Bennett’s TALKING HEADS at the Bridge, recreated the TV versions under Hytner and it turned out true that  one found new things and fresh nuances in seeing them live.  

  “..Amid the Bennettian wry pathos the playlets were often enormously funny.  Not that they weren’t on TV, in a head-nodding sort of way, but one didn’t often laugh aloud.  Here was evidence that even  a scattered  audience has the old communal magic:   pleasure was redoubled by shared giggles and some real barks of laughter…performers definitely made the most of that,  understood their pauses, did it for us who were there”.

    There too in the weirdly social-distanced clumps of chairs I saw Ralph Fiennes do  David Hare’s grumpy monologue BEAT THE DEVIL,  all about how Hare got Covid and it was basically all Boris Johnson’s fault.   And then – just before the iron fist of restriction closed it – there was A CHRISTMAS CAROL with the peerless Simon Russell Beale and sparky Patsy Ferran.   The joy of that – with a cast of three and careful budget – was that it took advantage to be text-heavy, DIckensian. By doing that it brought back 

  ‘“ some of the often forgotten moments: the miners and lighthousemen singing, the shrugging businessmen in the street”.    

    I notice that I also wrote about SRB as Scrooge that:

    “…when under the final Spirit he sees himself dead and  despised,  his horror is as breathtaking as any Faustus or Lear”

     OK,  but spare my blushes. It was a bit emotional, getting back to theatre after even longer than everyone else.  A bit much, though.  

          Meanwhile other brave theatres struggled through, determined. Even with new work:  HOWERD’S END at the Golden Goose in Camberwell paid tribute to Frankie Howerd in Mark Farrelly’s new two- hander.

“…[Howerd] fascinated me in my late 50’s childhood – his was a fifty year career – because his looks, which he described as “face like a camel on remand” were worryingly like those of my Granny in old age. Especially when going “oooh!” In a knowingly filthy way.   It was also of interest because I know two people who worked with him and didn’t like him one bit:  tricky, moody, sexually predatory, they said.

      But he had an excuse.. It was no picnic to be gay  in the in the unforgivingly homophobic 1950s and early 60’s, when audiences adored the liberation of camp  but abhorred the reality of same-sex love.  And, as in Howerd’s case,  drove that abhorrence deep into the private identity of some victims.  He hated it, despised himself, and never over their forty-year partnership acknowledged Dennis Heymer as his partner”.   

      That was moving, interesting, good pub-theatre.  More purely entertaining was LONE FLYER at the Watermill, a tribute to Amy Johnson by Ade Morris.  And a fresh new musical,  THE LAST FIVE YEARS,  surfaced at the gallant Southwark Playhouse .   I liked it a lot and am glad it has returned in 2021 up West. 

         But the shades of night were creeping on us, the curtains falling.   Another Christmas Carol at Bury St Edmunds was outdoors, freezing cold,  with a cast of six plus a stilt-walking ghost  Hi-vis jacketed ushers,  distancing by traffic cones, all in headphones, in front of the Angel hotel in the square.  Back in London, .  POTTED PANTO opened in the daytime West End  and I noted that Daniel Clarkson and Jeff Turner had 

“ actually polished it up better in this season of compulsorily half-empty houses and scrupulous virus-bashing.  Nor is there any truth in the  rumour that panto  whooping, shouting and jumping in the seats would be banned in favour of silent hi-fives and the like.   There’s a fair bit of audience racket, though it never felt worrying –  given the distanced seats and the fact that the noisiest were plainly family bubbles some distance away”.   

 The final outing was to the Palladium and PANTOLAND,  much the same core of Wilmont, Zerdin, Havers and Clary as returned this year, with some of the same jokes.  Not complaining. Cheered us up no end in that dangerous December,  when lockdown loomed again.    I called it “a proper, silly, defiant  showbiz shot in the arm. “  And did wonder whether the royal children a few days earlier had been spared some of the broader trouser-related Clary jokes.  

         Probably not.  Anyway, it closed the day after we saw it, and the desert loomed again, for many months…. 

      Tomorrow I shall post up Part 2:  a celebration of theatre’s return to life in 

2021.   Meanwhile, as ever, all reviews are scrollable-searchable on this site for the record.

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PEGGY FOR YOU Hampstead Theatre NW3



    Lounging in the small hours on her office couch, under a wall of posters for her many clients’ shows – both famous and forgotten –  Peggy is fresh back from bailing out a client. Police stations, she finds, are interesting: everyone should go.  A script falls from her hands as she seizes another.  “Wonderfully written.  That’s really the problem”.  On her (bare) feet again she is soon batting off those who want her beloved clients to “whore” for Hollywood for not enough money.   “You have reached new levels of impertinence even for an American..discuss it with your fellow-pimps”. Assistant Tessa arrives,  to take down a sharp note to  “that ghastly bishop … sent me his play, retyped the title, pretends he has rewritten it’ .  There’s been a bit of confusion with the wrong cheques sent to her two Yorkshire Alans, Ayckbourn  and Plater.  She assumes they live close, Hull and Scarborough, surely virtually next door…?

     It is Hull-Alan (Plater !) who wrote this 1999 play about tPeggy Ramsay, midwife and defender of  the 20th century’s best playwrights .  Scarborough-Alan,  on first reading it,  said it gave so much about the nuts and bolts it was like inviting the critics in your bedroom.    Well, if you love plays,   this is an invitation not to miss: pile in!     Tamsin Greig, elegant as an anaconda and just as ruthless, is in herself a serious treat;   and Plater ensures both comedy and important hard-kernel ideas in her interactions with the longsuffering secretary (Danusia Samal) and three playwright clients – imaginary, but based on himself and memory of others.   The first is Simon,  Josh Finan as a gauche 21-year-old with a winning mixture of shyness and the headlong artistic self-confidence that not only sends her his play “Shades of Nothingness” but demands she come and see a scratch pub performance that very night.  She agrees, shrugging off the National Theatre’s new Uncle Vanya, on the grounds she knows the play so well she could virtually sing along.  And,  with a lovely barb, that such events tend to “put fifty thousand poundsworth of scenery between the audience and the play”, and that young directors should be kept away from “concepts”.  Glorious. 

          Any play about a real person must be, she once said, a pack of lies; but these lies are memories, appreciations, gamey flavours for which her shade should be grateful to Plater.  Not only for the reminiscences which must be real; Orson Welles eating all the biscuits, Ionesco making passionate love and taking passionate offence, Sam Beckett in Paris “two streets away from my abortionist”. 

         The second playwright is Philip, a smooth Jos Vantyler as a client at the golden-boy stage:  on Broadway and the West End, taking her to lunch, announcing his engagement.  She treats him no better or worse than young Simon.   Since the latter has asked the rare and tricky question “What IS a play?” she faces him with it, and gets some artsy clichés – “A celebration of our humanity. A message to the future..” etc.  But the best answer came earlier , as she mused about the Humber bridge:  you set out in the fog not knowing where it leads, then the mists clear and you have arrived somewhere.  That stops the heart; so does an extraordinary moment when she quotes Henry IV part 2  and the rejection of Falstaff “I know thee not, old man”. 

          That’s artful.  It prefigures the hard core of the play. For the first half,  I worried it might be just an entertaining tribute-band to Peggy and her era, darlings all the way.   But the third client is Trevor Fox hard-bitten, Geordie, fed up with her, giving his notice, refusing to be dazzled by her  whimsical distractions.   He is the only one to silence her, with a devastating “I wasn’t mad about the real Lucille Ball”  so why a “cheap imitation”?  He is angry at her assumption (clear in her dealings with the engaged Philip) that life has to be lived chaotically if there is to be art.  

           The mist is clearing, we are nearing the revelation at the end of the bridge.  For all the darlings and wit,  we need to see (and love, and forgive for art’s sake) the vital splinter of ice in her heart.   Calls from newspapers tell of another client’s drunken suicide,  and Tessa, genuinely upset,  is told to negotiate fees for obituaries by fellow clients.   Peggy  just says the man had stopped writing. She doesn’t care. “I don’t respect writers, I respect their work”.   Asks Henry about the obit and when he rasps “I don’t dance on graves for money” she replies “No point doing it for fun”. 

      But an apologia saves her for our exasperated, impressed love.   Roaming the cluttered shelves of plays she points out that her mind is full, constantly full, of every kind of drama –  new takes on Romeo and Juliet, rites of passage,  “two psychiatrists going mad in adjacent rooms, Casanova Meets The Government Inspector, set in Woking..”.

     Oh yes. Think I’ve seen most of them.   All honour to those who write plays and fund them, but to those who find, encourage, defend and sell them a special tribute is also owed.  This, I think, is it.   Loved every minute. 

box office   to 29 Jan

rating four 

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PANTOLAND mk2 Palladium, W1



  Last year as a family we came to see the doughty quartet doing this variety show, an adult-joking  non-panto to fill the fearful gap.  It was the day after the royal children had been there.    Paul Zerdin, Gary Wilmot, Julian Clary and NIgel Havers, alongside Jac Yarrow and – that year- Elaine Paige and Beverley Knight.  Foolery, top ventriloquism from Zerdin, the Underground-stations song from Wilmot, big musical numbers filling in time, routine persecution of Havers as “underpaid minion”, and innumerable trouser-related jokes from Clary. 

          The next day, they closed for lockdown 2, haemhorraging money and hope.  So it became a golden memory of a gallant attempt,  light-theatre’s answer to the Charge of the Light Brigade. 

        So,  when my Life of Pi matinee was taken off for Covid,  I found the cheapest seat in the house – £25,  a marooned single in the stalls, not bad, always worth looking for singles – and joined a riotously determined queue down Argyll Street to get in to the 2.30 and report.

      Well, some of the jokes are recycled, as well they should be:  the Covid ones to a masked audience  still relevant (“looks like the invasion of the J-cloths”) though I didn’t hear my favourite one from last year, when Zerdin’s puppet leered to a woman in the front row ‘get your nose out for the lads!”.   One excellent new one (sorry, trouser-gay related again, that’s Clary for you) was the frou-frou MC saying he called Andrew Lloyd Webber and was told he was busy, “I’ve got Chris Whitty on my back…So I said Andrew, if that’s what it takes..”.

        The big turns are similar, though the Tiller Girls were a surprise. And, of course the outsider headliner was Donny Osmond.  I hadn’t noticed that on the poster,  so at last the shrieks of middle-aged ladies in that street queue made sense.  From inside an enormous mad blue kaftan and cloak he  howls out a specially written and truly atrocious opening number about how Pantoland “makes you who you are” or something,  and later does a rather fine mashup of Crazy Horses and a well-taken-up singalong of Love Me For A Reason. 

       Oh, and a duet with Clary,  whose shtick, as with Zerdin’s puppet duet last year with Knight, is sending up the song line by line.  I could have done with a touch less Donny,  but he was game, and it was fun, and all the acts – especially Zerdin – are top class. And the costumes, especially Clary’s, are quite wonderfully silly.   Oh, and of course there’s the pleasure of Nigel Havers,  who gets wild cheering whenever he comes on ever since his Coronation Street cad-with-a-finally-golden-heart affair with Audrey Roberts the septuagenarian hairdresser.   All respect to him at 71, leaping round the stage in a Buttons uniform or giant pudding;  in this break he’s actually halfway through a national tour of Private Lives (scroll down for theatrecat verdict).  

        And Nigel it is who gets to make the joke about a cheese and wine party with Boris. I hope by tonight they’re doing the new-baby jokes, and the fancy-wallpaper jokes.  The government owes us that.

      Inappropriate to rate it. But it’s a laugh, and it’s back, and the Palladium should always be packed in the Christmas season, for that is its nature.   Hope it stays that way.   

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James Graham’s mission might seem unfashionable: trawling 20c history and public culture, looking not for villains and heroes but for the nuances of human behaviour,  the nature of argument and the futility of hating or “cancelling” an opponent rather than listening, and valuing the fact that they are fallible human beings shaped by idiosyncratic forces and habits of thought, just like  you. He did it with MPs, with Labour loyalists, with tabloid hacks and the very Murdoch himself; he did it with  possibly-cheating quiz contestants and their TV exploiters.  He bends his eye on them, recreates, wonders, tries to understand,  and without unsubtly banging the drum delivers lessons for today.  

      This time he is in the US, and  the famous debates between the extreme right-wing, patriotism-and-family, traditionalist William F Buckley Jr and the maverick cosmopolitan controversialist Gore Vidal, friend of Kennedys. They were recruited by the failing TV network ABC, whose ratings panic is very funnily evoked as they disguise it with flapdoodle about “elevating public discourse”.The idea is that the men should comment, from their different sides, on a series of election-year conventions.  In other words, entertain the nation by tearing lumps off each other in a style now common but then considered odd.  “Opinions?” Cries an old-school presenter “The News does facts!”  Ah, the old days.  (Another interesting prefiguration of the future, by the way, is when Justina Kehinde as Aretha Franklin torch-songs her way through the Star-spangled banner and some are appalled: today in the US  that showbizzation of the national anthem is a norm, but makes me grateful to think how rarely we do it. The only big example was Brian May twanging it on the roof of Buckingham Palace at the Golden Jubilee..)

       Anyway:  Charles Edwards is a superb Gore Vidal,  his elegant lightness evoking the still-young controversialist who knew that you should “never refuse sex or a chance to be on TV”,  who got teasing fun out of calling Buckley “Billy”, but who after the brutally suppressed Chicago demonstrations is  genuinely shaken and afraid for what is happening to America.  Buckley, in a brilliant stroke of casting, is played by David Harewood.   The real right-wing bruiser was no respecter of people of colour, of course, so that might seem odd, excellent though the actor is:  but in the event there’s an interesting bite when in this very diverse South London theatre you have Harewood – who is black – eloquently condemning the liberal elite for self-indulgence and a lack of contact with ordinary working people.  

     Around the debates and tactical plotting scenes, up pop figures from Mayor Daley to James Baldwin, Enoch Powell to Tariq Ali;  between scenes, surges of demonstrators rush through the central arena with smoke and placards and racket (Director Jeremy Herrin is a master of keeping clarity and pace through quick-move, filmic fragments).  A flash-forward at the start keeps you aware we are building up to the explosive moment when Vidal calls Buckley (who had served, albeit Stateside, in WW2),  a “crypto-Nazi” whereon Buckley calls him a queer and threatens to sock him in the face.  At the start we had seen the TV executives horrified (“Sponsors? never mind that, my MOTHER  rang!”) . But in the reprise at the end they realize with delight how it has pushed up the ratings. Thus beautifully making Graham’s point that media behaviour has now driven us farther and deeper into this kind of ad-hominem poverty of constructive argument. 

    It’s an entertaining, instructive, questioning, honest play, with a downbeat and  moving end as the two men might speak after their death.  If like me you came of age in 1968,  shaken at the assassinations of Luther King and Robert Kennedy, arguing with your Dad about Vietnam and horrified at  Powell, then seeing it recreated is obviously catnip: student demos both sides of the Atlantic, hippies, an absurd flop-haired wimpy Andy Warhol.  But to newer generations would all this, I wondered, seem like just a history play?.  I think not.   In the interval I got talking to a young neighbour (the Young Vic atmosphere is always like that) and he was as engrossed as I was, and observed with sad wisdom,   “It was the beginning of Now, wasn’t it?”.   

Box office to 22 Jan

Rating four

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    First things first: this is the most wonderfully evocative, romantic and dramatic bit of set-projection you will see all year. Bob Crowley, video maestros Luke Halls and Zak Hein, Jon Clark on lighting, take a collective bow.  They write with light. So on a rippling river sweet-flowing  or tempestuous, through a branchy,  steepled and Prioried Oxfordshire, two children pilot a birchbark canoe on a desperate mission to save a baby.  And we believe.      Ashore, cobbles or grassland, a college quadrangle and the Trout pub at Godstow effortlessly rise around them.  

     It is, ironically, more of a staging coup than all the rather annoying lit-up chatty “daemons” which express each  characters’  essential Id in the hands of scampering puppeteers. Though I do very much like the worst villain’s hyaena , with its papery head and nervous laugh. 

      For this is Philip Pullman’s fantasy parallel world again:  after the triumphant Dark Materials trilogy a few years back at the NT, Nicholas Hytner (and ace adaptor Bryony Lavery) have got their hands on the first bit of the  “prequel” story of the heroine Lyra’s birth. The  dread Magisterium – a sort of 15c Catholic police state, familiar from Pullman’s  rather dated paranoia about organized religion in the later episodes – wants to destroy her. 

       You might, in a woefully uncharitable spirit, wonder why a writer so repeatedly and  Dawkinsly passionate against Christianity’s stories would write a fable about – er – a sacred baby who according to a “prophecy” is born to save the world from cruelty , and who is pursued by Herodish authority and spies. And wonder also why a writer who inveighs against CS Lewis’ Narnia would populate his river with similar old gods and witches , and give everyone a talking animal as a daemon. Even if he does add woo-woo scientific stuff about matter having  consciousness and a scholarly divining device called an alethiometer (Lewis had mere old fashioned wands etc, clearly not hanging out with as many physicists and cell biologists as his humanist Oxford heir). 

    But never mind all that. It’s a kids’ book, a love song to Oxfordshire and  a grand bit of storytelling in this skilful ,fast-moving and visually beautiful production     Its hero is a young find too: Samuel Creasey, on his first professional show, leads with charming, stolidly nerdy brio as Malcolm, the pub landlady’s 12 year old son and potboy, full of heart and adolescent decency, drawn into a dangerous world as the icy grip of totalitarian prelates intensifies. Ella Dacres’ Alice  is great too: shoutily fifteen, angry and contemptuous of Malcolm  until in the timeworn tradition of older children’s books they become friends in adversity.  

      It’s lovely casting, and as chief enemy and sanctimonious preacher Ayesha Darker also does a fine spike-heeled ,smart-suited nightmare CEO-lady; Pip Carter is a villainous villain, with all the unsettling sadistic sexual menace Mr Pullman likes to add.  Dearbhla Molloy as a kindly nun, and later an equally Irish Doris in a rebel camp, effortlessly steals every scene she is in. 

      So did  the first-night baby, who while sometimes prudently replaced by a dummy and sound effect is often on,  smiley and self- possessed and drawing aaahhhs and sighs from the audience which palpably hopes for another look. Even when supposed to be paying attention to mad stuff about the consciousness of matter, dons upset about research funding,  or who’s got the  missing alethiometer.  

     So Hytner and the brave Bridge have thrown genius at it, a big show in an edgy time, and as there are two more episodes to come Mr Pullman would do well to confide them to this crack team of interpreters. Because (how did you guess?) I found  the books far leas then gripping, never could finish one for mere irrritation at not buying into the fantasy, but I rather enjoyed the show. Result. to 12 feb

rating four but the fourth is a design mouse

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     Do you need to be of a generation to remember Morecambe and Wise, to which this play is a loving tribute-cum-amiable-ripoff?  Probably not. They are stamped on the national memory, probably genetically.  And anyway, there is universality  in the  idea of pretension overreaching itself in “the serious thea-tah”,  and even more in a comedy duo in which the straight man yearns to go legit with a  serious play and is conned by his larkier collaborator into thinking he has a contract.  

     The central pair do not attempt to be lookalikes,  but to channel the essence of our heroes.  Dennis Herdman is  taller, gangling, physically hilarious;  Thom Tuck smaller, neat, fussy, with a bit of a strut and a nice  edge of uncertainty.  At one point they actually quarrel over who will be the funny one with the black-rimmed glasses, but we know really, and so do they…. and there’s a real edge of pathos in that. Brilliant. Mitesh Soni is the butt of both, a theatre electrician persuaded into various undignified roles (notably a ginger Scarlett Johannson with knickers showing) when what he really  wants is to play a harmonica solo in memory of his mother.  That gives it an element not in the original shows, and helps it move away from tribute-band territory.  

     This production has a tour coming, but for me was worth a pilgrimage both to a notable revival and to the shrines of various comedy gods: not only Sean Foley who co-wrote it twenty years ago and now directs it for the first time in his new job as AD of Birmingham Rep;  and also (since nobody ever mentions them much) the producer and lover of all thing funny David Pugh, who is actually an character in it.  The hapless Arthur has to impersonate  him:  Soni plaintively Brummie, small and camp in a white suit and baker-boy cap.

     The great thing about  Foley is that as director , writer and sometimes performer he has happily spanned the breadth of comedy from drily intellectual all the way to the end of the pier, and off it with a resounding splash.   No awful pun, no repeated fall off a wall,  no ridiculous prop or set detail is too broad: designer Alice Power, take a bow and join the comedy gods.   We sort of expected the talking skeleton, but not the entire row of dancing ones, the dungeon rack and jenga moment, the inflatable towering  palms, giant breadstick or enormous curtain- dog. Thank you.  

     The Morecambe and Wise echoes, even apart from deathless Braben jokes like the ice cream van, are done with love and delight: Arsenal, “Rubbish!”, the odd cheek-slap,  the curtain gags and of course the breezy contempt for the guest-star dragged in to the eventual play.  Who was, on this opening night, Tom Hiddleston.   Not being a follower of the Marvel franchise in which he is Loki the horned god of mischief, I still thought of him mainly as either the Night Manager of the Olivier-winning Coriolanus (and yes, there’s a joke on those last syllables, as there should be. Never waste a rudery, it’s panto time).   Longtime fans of the play reckon it is always best if the guest star (they’ve ranged from Jeff Goldblum to Geldof)  isn’t a comic, and that if a classical actor they should mercilessly send up the fact.   Hiddleston is perfect,  pompously announcing that he ‘does his own stunts’ and demonstrating a school-gym forward roll before struggling, with classically-trained pain, to make  Thom’s subliterate lines work.  His “I am Loki” is met by Dennis with a sigh of ‘Mm.You’re pretty high maintenance tonight, love”.  He isn’t. Hiddleston must do more straight-man comedy. 

    There are plenty of surprise jokes which, amid the general merriment, stick out as memorable.    Birmingham should be especially grateful for one new word.    Thom Tuck’s lone plaint when he tries to leave the act is dubbed a “Solihulloquy”.  Now that’s  a word which just has to stick.  

Box office To 1 Jan

Touring on until March.  –    Bath, Salford, Chichester, Malvern, Sheffield

Rating. Four 

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THE TEMPEST           Jermyn St Theatre SW1



  One of the interesting, rewarding quirks in Tom Littler’s small-but-perfectly-formed Tempest is that Tam Williams doubles as Ferdinand, the ultra-virtuous shipwrecked Prince,  and  as a particularly farouche barebreasted Caliban — unrecognisable in a ragged white whole-head mask. Which is great for Williams, since Ferdinand is quite a dull part and Littler has, interestingly, directed Caliban as not only savage  and resentfully dangerous but a creature existing in real and constant pain, fear and confusion. When Stephano the sottish butler gives him a drink, one is rather pleased for the poor monster.  Given that Caliban is nowadays a problematic part  – an indigenous islander taught and harshly disciplined by Prospero – this is extraordinarily effective, and Williams’ writhing rage  gives it disconcerting reality. When Rachel Pickup’s splendidly vigorous Miranda confronts him over his rape attempt, the brief scene flies.

     The other doublings are neat, and the “clown” parts in particular work well: Peter Bramhill a Yorkshire Trinculo, Richard Derrington a bowler hatted and I think Welsh butler.  Whitney Kehinde’s Ariel is a Gauguin beauty, melodic, engaging, and again interestingly not (like some Ariels) cocky, but so cowed and eager to please that there is a nice edge of colonial unease there. “”Do you love me, master? No?”.  

       And as for Prospero himself, in this production which was a triumph of casting and hope before the pandemic hit it after six shows, he is no less than Michael Pennington. And classy as ever, despite the oddity that he is “on the book”, reading from it throughout. Which obviously reduces his eye contact with usand his physical moves. I was disconcerted by this aat first, but closing my eyes for a moment or two when he was alone onstage realized it didn’t matter:  I was beguiled by his impeccable, deep-felt RSC delivery and thought it rather increased the dreamlike oddity of the whole play (the shipwrecked party are all in pajamas or dressing gowns).  After all,  Prospero speaks constantly of depending on his books, of learning, of his library (nicely evoked by sea-wave curved shelves in his cell). Maybe he is reading us the story, and we are children, captives of a fantasy.

       It’s odd, and I’d like one day to see him an upright and authoritative Prospero, more dominant, thundering. But it’s a play I have loved all my life, and this bijou, quirky production has made me see new things in it. Result. 

BOX OFFICE    to  22 Dec

rating four

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FOUR QUARTETS Harold Pinter Theatre


(Review first published on D.Mail, in shorter form)

       This is wonderful. Sometimes a simple short  performance can shake, rouse, even change you.  So step away, I beg you, from the mundane rush of earning and spending, leave the gaudy Christmas streets and the scrolling, nagging screens. Sit quiet for 75 minutes while a tall, high-browed, slightly haggard man reflects on time, eternity,  mortality. Feel with him the “still centre of the turning world”, the piercing wonder  of those moments when suddenly something immense  fills you,  then slips away, uncatchable. 

   TS Eliot write these four long poems in the 30s and 40s: they are not easy, but their music and images have great power. Ralph Fiennes spent the two long lockdowns learning them by heart: he had recorded them before, but wanted to get closer to Eliot’s religious and philosophical vision. It feels, in this performance, that he did: reaching out (though no human ever quite grasps it) for the meaning of those moments of eternity.   They might come in a silent rose-garden, beside a crashing sea, in distant voices of children , or  fire-watching by night in the Blitz (as Eliot himaself did).  

     Fiennes learned the poems in two sessions – pausing between lockdowns to perform David Hare’s grumpy monologue BEAT THE DEVIL , which is about how Hare caught Covid and it was all somehow Boris Johnson’s fault). As he did, it came to him while the lockdowns made time seem to squeeze or stretch for everyone, and mortality brushed closer,    that the four might be performed physically. That somehow it might serve us all. He toured it first, exhaustively, without the high high prices of the West End. The idea of personal performance, directed by himself though without vanity I think, was genius: because we are carried along by his physical presence and his moves – sometimes dramatic, sometimes almost playful. It is set on a simple stage with great revolving grey walls: dark spaces open and close as he wanders between them,  sometimes pushing one to create a different space and perspective. The meditation moves from exaltation to despair, even amusement. Eliot is sometimes  lyrically beautiful, often learned, but also suddenly stops to consider his own baffled inability to express what he glimpses. Fiennes makes good use of this, sometimes seeming to appeal to us, sometimes alone deep in meditation. That long tour of this extraordinary show for months may have given it still more depth. It is worth drowning in. 


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