Monthly Archives: January 2022



      Inspired programming here.   You’d find a decent overlap in any January Venn diagram of regular Donmar audiences and people who wish they were ski-ing;  and on the very day M.Macron let Brits back into France,  I was admiring the little theatre’s Alpine backdrop and a white sloping stage occasionally traversed by elegant skiers in competitive-cool outfits.  Better still, Tim Price’s adaptation of Ruben Ostlund’s film features every recognizable family ski-trip trope:  knows-best Dad not yet separable from his work-phone,  dragging them all on the slopes before getting some food in them, stressed Mum,  teenage girl who would rather have gone to St Tropez,  and a tantrum-prone kid brother whining about lost goggles and wanting to FaceTime the family dog.  Meanwhile friends,  a childfree and only semi-committed couple, are ready to be drawn into emotional eddies of family life they do not yet understand.   Perfect: one’s hopes rise for a middle-class meltdown in the style of Yasmina Reza or vintage Ayckbourn.   

       It doesn’t quite happen, the script workable but not special: yet in Michael Longhurst’s elegant production, led by Rory Kinnear,   offers a lot to enjoy along the way.  The inciting incident is darkly clever, and presaged by the eerie boom of avalanche-gun explosions.    As the family finally settle in a mountaintop restaurant for lunch, one of these is followed by a wonderful deafening roar and snow-mist half obscuring the stage,  as it is clear the avalanche is heading disastrously towards them.   

         It misses, but after the chaos it becomes clear that Daddy Tomas didn’t  – gulp! –  reach for his wife and children,  but took his phone, and ran screaming.   Silence on the subject at first (wives know how to wait their time, calm the kids). But  in conversation with the friends that evening she relates it, and he does the full Boris-cum-Andrew angry male denial:  didn’t happen, can’t run in ski-boots anyway,  she must be remembering wrong…

     Consternation grips the friends,  unable to deal with it if it happened and still less able to deal with the accusation if it didn’t.  A neurotic night follows for all.   Such trips are never quite smooth anyway (“It’s a family holiday, I’m not SUPPOSED to enjoy it” barks Kinnear).   Wife wants to go straight home and “talk about all this there”, having lost faith in life, and  especially in  him.  Tomas responds with more defiance, followed by a full admission and a crazed collapse into sobbing , wailing  neurotic self-loathing  “I hate what i have become!”.  

          Which, naturally, causes his the rest of the family to embrace and care for him, so he wins anyway.   Kinnear is quite wonderful, both in his confidence and his collapse,  deftly combining  comic absurdity and precarious maleness.   Lyndsey Marshal is good as the wife,  though even in this small theatre sometimes barely audible (TV-mumble acting creeping in),  and when the emotion rises is properly impressive, a barely-restrained female frustratee we all recognize .   The other couple, Siena Kelly and Sule Rimi (a natural comic) have a glorious nocturnal sequence as he starts to panic about his own male trustworthiness.   The children are horribly credible,  and Raffello Degruttola deserves a mention as one of his almost wordless parts is Man With Vacuum Cleaner.   It gets a good laugh every time. 

       I daresay some may have left the theatre musing seriously on the toxic potential of masculine identity,  but most of us, I suspect, were just laughing and wondering if or when we shall get to see real ski-slopes again.  As I say, genius programming for winter 2022.  

box office   to 5 feb

rating three


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LIFE OF PI Wyndhams WC2

Puppets move the heart

      It was a third attempt ( like so many, it has had cancellations and suspensions), and I missed it in Sheffield 2019 through illness. So  I bought any ticket I could get on a free day.  Row A, bang up against the stage,  thrillingly gazing up (technically a restricted-view) at enormous orang-utans and galloping zebras inches from my nose. The  famous oversized Bengal tiger snarled personally in my face.  I had wanted to see the puppetry, of course: Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell’s exquisite work, with operators uncannily sensitive to animal movement and moods, does bring such joyful suspension of disbelief that on noticing that the huge tiger has three people operating it,  I found myself thinking “Well, it needs that many, to keep it under control”.  As if it was working them,  not vice versa.

Yann Martel’s odd fable is now famous from the novel, a Booker winner, and a CGI-rich film:  its hero is an Indian teenager from Pondicherry, a sensitive dreamer who embraces all religions but maintains Hindu vegetarianism and respect for life.  He is shipwrecked as his family zoo flees political trouble to safety in Canada.  Orphaned and alone  he survives months of a Pacific ordeal in a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, and a tiger called – due to a clerical error – Richard Parker .  His story is told in vivid flashbacks in a hospital , to a flatfooted insurance-assessor (David KS Tse, beautifully fussy and finally human) and to a Canadian consul. 

      Hiran Abeysekera is a delight as the puckish Pi: childlike,  deep still in trauma in the hospital  to which we keep returning, but  at sea with the creatures able to draw on every memory of adult advice. He hallucinates his mother, teacher, sternly realistic father and one (very funny) British naval officer explaining the manual of sea- survival.  Which, not funnily at all, means the dedicated Hindu must kill a struggling turtle and feed on it alongside the tiger he has learned to dominate. It is no show for the fragile youngest.

     Directed by Lolita Chakrabati  and designed by Tim Hatley it is of course spectacular in staging,  fast-moving and engrossing and takes  every advantage of exotica  : from the zoo and the colourful Indian marketplace to the wide starry Pacific night.   But I had not expected to be so moved.  It wasn’t so much the boy’s suffering, fiercely evoked as that is, especially in the final revelation of what really happened beyond his hallucinatory story.  It was a wider shaking of the soul: an awareness of the savagery and nobility of the universe, of  creatures struggling to survive with joy and purpose against all odds under the dead cosmic shine of the stars.   And, in that curious parallel sensitivity more commonly felt in energetic musical-theatre,  it was hard not to be aware also of the skill, thought, and design, dedication and sweat of  theatremakers, players and puppeteers.  Because they too are struggling for survival now.  

       And of course  beyond that lay the very story of Pi battling alone and homesick and half dead, grieving mutilated animals and lost family, bargaining with the remorseless tiger.  Hard not to think of the young in even smaller boats today in Mediterranean and Channel, survivors often of tigerish humanity. So yes, emotional. 

        Yann Martel would probably approve.  The novelist, whose book was so eccentric and unfashionable that many publishers turned it down ,  said once that the story was  summarized in three statements: “Life is a story”; “You can choose your story”; and “A story with God is the better story”

Box office       To. 29 may

Rating four

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FOLK Hampstead Theatre, NW3


      There’s a lovely serendipity here.  The main theatre is running PEGGY FOR YOU  (till 29th)  while the little downstairs space has Nell Leyshon’s rather lovely new play imagining Cecil Sharp collecting folk-songs in Somerset.   Both are about mentor-midwives to artists,  and artists who in return may be both appreciative and resentful.   Upstairs there’s Peggy Ramsay, not herself a creative but a devoted playwrights’ agent;   downstairs there’s an Edwardian musicologist,  wishing he was a better composer himself  as he collects and rearranges “the true song of England” from rustics. 

       Sharp felt that England had since Purcell’s day fallen behind the Germans, who insultingly called us “das land ohne musik” (land without music).   Explaining himself to the cottager-maidservant Louisa Hooper he fulminates “Scotland has her songs. Ireland has nothing but song. Wales even has songs!  But England…” . 

        “They’re wrong”  says Louie boldly. “We got songs”.   And that’s the answer Sharp has come for:  something he sees as pure and English “before the machines take over and before it all goes”.   She sings to him,  one of the hundreds of songs she got from her newly dead mother.  And yes, the hairs stand up on your neck,   especially if you recognize “Lord Randal”. Because it’s  best known as an Anglo-Scottish border ballad,  and then as a borrowing by Bob Dylan.  That’s a clever choice, since it reminds us early on that for all Sharp’s anxieties about Englishness the magical thing is  the glorious, wandering, gipsy freedom of all these songs. They cross borders and oceans.   He was right to collect them in versions passed by voice and ear, to cherish and write them down as black-dots on staves.  But he was  wrong, some say, to take lordly ownership of the old songs, to fossilize and rearrange them for trained metropolitan concert artists. That argument still goes on in your local folk club.  It needs to. 

          Joyfully,  Nell Leyshon’s artful script takes in these divisive perspectives on the legacy Cecil Sharp as Louie Hooper, the poor cottage outworker with hands sore from glove-making,  repeatedly pulls him up short.  First when – though astonished  and thrilled by  her first hearing of the vicar’s “pianoforte” –  she asks incredulously   “Can you have a JOB doing music?”.    Later she spurns his arrangement of one of the songs she has sung him  with   “I can’t hear my mother. It’s rigid, it’s tidy, there’s nothing of the wild”.   And again “You pin it down so tight!”.  “I tidied it”  he protests, a bit hurt at her lack of admiration.  Scornful looks.   This is no malleable figure for a Pygmalion:  Louie knows who she is, what her home is, and the value of the deep untidy belly-feelings her mother’s songs evoke. 

      Sharp admits that her illiteracy has been his gain, because  “if you could write you wouldn’t remember so many songs”.    Subversively,  though, this daughter of the years  before free elementary education teaches him how to sing a whole scene properly, the old way,  moving your heart from field to field and flower to flower:  he stands abashed.   But he knows and we know, that a new century is breaking,  and life  must and will change.  Louie knows it too,  rejecting sentimental fossilization of songs and ideas.   “Nothing stands still” she says flatly.  The changing countryside, the very drainage scheme of the Somerset Levels, has taught her that. 

         The songs Leyshon uses – heartbreaking, familiar now,  with their trees that grow high and grass that grows green, sad graves and loves lost and maidens chased into the bushes – were collected from various people  including the real and well-documented Louisa Hooper.  But there’s a truthful dramatic core to the whole venture in the play’s narrow focus:  an imaginative light shone on this warily friendly relationship between a slightly arrogant musical academic and a cottage girl who sings from heart and memory and love. 

     Mariam Haque is a wonderfully moving Louie,  bringing the part shyness and defiance,  a noble straightforwardness both in song and argument.    Simon Robson catches the way Sharp’s academic arrogance is softened by a real hunger for human understanding which enabled him to listen properly to the peasant or gipsy voices his class often ignored.    Louie’s half-sister Lucy, sometimes singing alongside her and  suffering her own loss of love is Sasha Frost,  vigorously down-to-earth in contrast.   Ben Allen’s restless rustic John,  keen to escape the stinking leatherworks for a life in Canada, completes the foursome.

      The set is simple, cottage to vicarage marked  by lights rising gently on tapestries and piano as the women’s workstations are spirited away.  Roxana Silbert’s direction is gentle, unhurried, respectful.  As indeed it was in RAYA,  another recent jewel in Hampstead’s downstairs.  Come to think of it, it’s the third in a row under this Artistic Director which has made it sing to the heart ;   there was also Tom Wells’ BIG BIG SKY.  Tiny no-tech space , three new plays mid-pandemic, new shakings of the heart and thoughts for the head.   Respect.  Get this play on the road this spring, someone.

box office    to 5 Feb.   

rating four 

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