Monthly Archives: March 2022

CLYBOURNE PARK Park Theatre, N4

WELCOME BACK, BITING SHARP AS EVER

   In 2010 Bruce Norris’ play wowed the Royal Court: this is a  ten-year anniversary (well, plus two years lost to Covid) so forgive me for quoting what I wrote then:

“I spent the interval racked with worry that the play might decline in Act 2. If that had happened I would have trudged heartbroken into the night, unable to write a word. No danger, though: it roared off again into the stratosphere, glittering and throwing off sparks.”

     It is a treat to return to this clever, honest, mocking piece: a comedy wrapped around a tragedy, a satire on class, race, offence, grief and housing. And by chance I see it  just after the Bridge’s Straight Line Crazy (below), about New York’s  growth and social conflicts 1922-62.   For this, set in the same house in 1959 and then 2009, makes a sort of accidental oblique sequel, conveying the  human tides flowing along those expressways. It is sharp, funny, bookended with delicate grace by  an acknowledgement of  tragedy. In  Oliver Kaderbhai’s  production it is also most beautifully acted. 

     . In 1959 Bev (Imogen Stubbs, housewifely, wittering, cloaking a deep grief)  and her husband Russ (keeping a lid on it, postwar-stoical) are selling up to a non-white family, which fills their  prat neighbour Karl with horror. Gradually we learn how, despite their initially vapid conversations, Russ and Bev are blighted by the shame and suicide of their soldier son after  the  Korean war . Mediated with zero success by the local minister, and witnessed by their decent embarrassed black maid and her husband, a glorious row develops. 

     Andrew Langtree’s Karl – bowtie and strutting gait – is perfect, furious about unmixable  “cultures” and house prices,  not above a bit of blackmail. Richard Lintern as Russ is magnificent both in  restraint and the loss of it: preoccupied, crippled with grief and memory, rising  to a massive justified anger.  Stubbs gives us an innocent, kindly and tormented and clumsily trapped in white-madam patronage:  in a heartbreaking last remark to her gentle cleaner,  she murmurs how good it would be “if we could all sit together at table”

    So we can feel briefly superior to these 1959 people, but fifty years on, after the neighbourhood “went black” and white gentrifiers are moving in, Act2 shows their successors.  The same cast but wholly different (Stubbs now a hellish self satisfied lawyer, Langtree a different kind of prat) are at a homeowners’ meeting about planning objections. At, as it were, the same table,  but not doing too  well. They – we – are just as absurd and even touchier, in Norris’ early and timely prefiguraration of our present Age of Offence. 

     This play indeed just gets more and more topical, with its famously  cathartic storm of mutual offence:  gay, black, white, pregnant, patriotic, all furious….all it needs is for trans politics to be dropped in and we’s be in 2022. Themes from the first act are neatly interwoven: among them the original tragedy itself, a delicate, understated staging stopping your breath. . Seven fine actors dazzle, veteran and newcomers  (Aliyah Odoffin is on a professional stage debut, assured and elegantly in timing).   The play deserves no less. 

Parktheatre.co.uk. To 23 April

Rating.  Four

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STRAIGHT LINE CRAZY. Bridge, SE1

THE ROUGH TOUGH BIRTH OF A CITY

   It is not often I resort to drawing in the notebook, but there it is: half an hour into the first part of David Hare’s play about the city planner Robert Moses,  whose demonic  energy built modern New York between the 20’s and the ’60s.  I seem to have drawn two stick-men.  Danny Webb is Governor Al Smith, a furious little gnome with a cigar leaning back in his chair, defiant with elected authority, and Ralph Fiennes’ Moses faces him:  craggy, arms folded,  an immovable and stroppy Easter Island statue. The men’s previous bantering, Bourbon-fuelled comradeship is exploding in disagreement, alarming and hilarious at once. (Danny Webb one of the few performers I’ve ever seen who can take your eyes off the granitic Fiennes).  

       The governor is furious at the planner’s having insouciantly started  work on his latest expressway before a sign-off or resolution of a legal challenge.  Moses will win this one, as he did over forty years in post: smashing slums and building 670 miles of roads, seven bridges, the Brooklyn tunnel, the airport, the UN, the Shea Stadium,  countless towers, playgrounds, pools and parks, a dam.  In these first-half battles he is creating a proper road system on Long Island, defying  landed plutocrats to open up its beaches for the people.  

       It is clever of Hare  to start us with the visionary populism of the man, a striding, sea-swimming alpha male who confronts a suave Henry Vanderbilt over the right of ordinary New Yorkers to enjoy the open land – “You made your millions out of the kikes and wops in your tenements..”.  Henry Ford has invented workers’ holidays and there was this new thing called “leisure”.   We see too the almost hypnotized loyalty of Moses’ team , represented in the play by Siobhan Cullen as a lively Finnuala and Samuel Barnett as the more cautious, sometimes dismayed Ariel.  There will be hints and revelations as the play goes on that actually the people Moses cares most  about are not the very poorest  but what modern politics calls the squeezed-middle,  ‘hardworking families” with cars.  He hated rapid-transit public services and even built the Long Island bridges too low for the buses needed by the carless masses.  He was, in many ways, the prophet who made America a dependent automobile nation. 

     But in that first half, for all his sharp edges he is a hero to relish, and Fiennes gives it everything. If there are moments (the ones without Danny Webb in them) when you wonder about the measured pace director Nick Hytner has set,  you find out later that subtly establishing the relationships in that office is significant.   For the interval spans thirty years:  and by the 50s we find an older, more formally suited boss, still with these two lieutenants,  still impatient but no longer an unbeatable magician whose ruthless, straight-line ruler can smash  any community in the name of highway logic.  

         Alisha Bailey has joined the team as  Mariah, whose cousins were  bulldozered out of the Bronx community,  and who pleads the cause of the campaigners against a  “sunken highway” bisecting Washington Square Park.   Moses’ first-act impetus, so exhilarating,  has hardened to stubborn contempt.  Cleansing, urban renewal, newness and the car are everything, conservation is “a racket run by women and liberals” and hardly less despicable than Caesar salad (“lettuce coated with slime”.)  Even his voice is deeper.  This time he is fighting not a few Long Island grandees but a growing and equally self-protective middle-class and Eleanor Roosevelt (“Is there a vexatious case in America that does not have HER support?”).  His attitude echoes that of the long-gone Governor Al:  people are not reasonable, so “We must advance their interests without taking any notice of their opinions”.

          The parallels with a dozen current disputes are irresistible: mass tourism, cars, power stations, class hostility.   Fiennes is irresistible, and allowed in the final scenes an edge of vulnerability (for a soft-heart may beat in the toughest political dramatist). I may have to go and watch it all happening again. 

Bridgetheatre.co.uk. To 19th June         Rating. Five

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THE MARRIAGE OF ALICE B.TOKLAS   Jermyn St Theatre, WC1

A PLAY IS A PLAY IS A PLAY IS A WEDDING

   With typical wit,  the doughty little Jermyn has captured an intellectual-farcical oddity from New York  complete with author-director and star.  Tom Littler  signed them up for 2020, with obvious results, but lured them back on the far side of theatre’s  Covidgeddon.   Edward Einhorn’s play is a quirky, comic four-hander celebrating (with gentle mockery) the forty year partnership between Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas. 

     It depicts a  wedding, complete with nips of champagne distributed in the short break in its 90 minutes,  long before such same sex unions were thinkable.  It is set within their famous Rue de Fleurus salon,  forever a-teem  with Stein’s fellow “geniuses”:  artists and writers and expat aesthetes of that legendary early- 20c Parisian ferment.  Actually,  there’s a lot of emphasis on geniuses as a cadre,of which the smilingly obliging Alice knows she is not a member.  She is just there to love Stein and “entertain the wives” while the geniuses utter at one another in the other room. 

        So Picasso (a hilarious Kelly Burke)  is in and  out all day,   representing himself or a herd of mistresses and models, and plays celebrant at the women’s (rather touching) Jewish wedding.    Ernest Hemingway (Mark Huckett, making the most of a solid furious masculinity) stomps about incomprehending in this female landscape of monogamous devotion.  A host of others – guests, Stein’s  brother, TS Eliot, James Joyce  – flit in and out dextrously courtesy of Burke and Huckett. 

     At the heart of it, sometimes switching roles with firm meta-theatre signalling,  is Natasha Byrne as a formidable, centred Stein with all that philosopher- poet’s assurance, and Alyssa Simon, who played the role in the US, is her sweet Alice.  It is often very funny – you’ll love the wedding night sex scene, ladies – though at times I wondered if the whimsy could hold up, and whether the aesthetes; pretension was given too free a rein.   

      But it does hold, for 90 highly enjoyable minutes .  You get a real sense of that  bohemian creative ferment,  both absurd and enlighteningly necessary as the West recoiled and reconsidered between the wars. You feel the shadows over it too, and the compromises.  Shafts of sudden  epigrammatic truth sparkle suddenly, and it is a hymn to solid love.  Hemingway is reproached for his ignorance of that – “All you know is tortured love and unadulterated lust”. For Stein and Toklas unity is total, and homely.    “I am my beloved and my beloved is me”.

      Indeed at Stein’s abrupt exit – she died first – Alyssa Simon is heartbreaking: a simple devoted non-genius,  bereaved and robbed of inheritance by Stein’s family , and of course never legally a wife.  Its always the streak of sadness that gives comedy its truth.

Box office jermynstreettheatre.co.uk.   To 16 April

Some socially distanced performances.

Rating. Four

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MARIA FRIEDMAN AND FRIENDS – LEGACY

BRACING, BELTING, BENIGN

      At the end of the evening the great diva, director and muse informs us that we too must sing. In a packed house,  on the far side of a pandemic which made us fear one another’s very breath, we join the posse of old-timers and ingenu(e)s  she has brought onstage to this showcase:  a cosy but sharp-worked cabaret of reminiscence and tributes to the musical theatre greats like  Sondheim, Hamlisch and LeGrand.  There’s even, near the end,  a memorable rendering of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, though I have never before heard it done as a wild belting showtune.  Our finale though under orders is Sondheim:  the great anthem to youthful optimism from Merrily We Roll Along:

 – 

“Edges are blurring all around, yesterday is done…

      It’s our time, breathe it in: worlds to change and worlds to win!”

\

Yes. Gulp. With so many young onstage around the old lioness, that hits you. No room here for the coolly emotionless; you either leave this show vowing to devote your life to musical theatre and its people,  or equally resolved never to go near one again. It’s that intense.  I took a young companion,  not part of that world or its fans, and worried a bit, giving her permission to duck out at the interval if she wanted.  I am happy to say that it got her, like everyone, by the scruff of the neck from the first belting ensemble and kept her breathless  through Friedman’s scattergun memories, song after song and rolling fragments of shows (including a spectacular Sweeney Todd sequence and the young ensemble’s  moving fragment from A Chorus Line). 

        That last one was moving, because even without pandemic interregna,  they really do have difficult worlds to win.  Desmonda Cathabel from Indonesia will win some: she packed in her job in Covid and sent a tape to the Royal College of Music and won a scholarship;  Alfie, Maria Friedman’s own son, was remarkable too, and throughout the changing casts there are reports of other flames burning into the art’s future.  

         The ensemble Windmills of Your Mind shook the roof. Oldster and youngster side by side, we reeled.    Hell, what can I say?  Not for us civilians to award prissy star-ratings to odd, cosy, enormous indulgences like this.  It’s running till 17 April, with some rolling casts.   We both skipped happily out, feeling filled.  Though I had to calm myself down with the considerably quieter and more restrained  Joni Mitchell version of Both Sides Now,  before bed was possible.

Menierchocolatefactory.com   To 17 April

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THE ANIMAL KINGDOM Hampstead theatre, NW3

 LEARNING TO LIVE

       Sometimes judging others harshly is a relishable guilty pleasure.  In Ruby Thomas’ wonderful 80-minute sequence of snapshots of  family therapy,  the writer is mischievously aware of this. A dark theme needs light touches, and she  wisely offers us a judgeable comic opening with  the artful performance of Martina Laird as the mother.  Rita is a doula,  airily spiritual and self-involved. Settling into the first session she delivers a treasurable question about the clinic’s water-jug – “Is it tap? I can’t drink tap, it’s a hormone thing”.  She then gushes about how her son is “my most precious thing”  , sharing her own fine capacity for  “feeling things” , and more brilliant than his sister Sofia. Who is sitting right there, glumly silent. That Rita’s  taciturn ex-husband Tim fled a decade ago seems not surprising.  

       Actually, one of the merits of this play is that giving us this brief early moment to roll our eyes at Rita, the writer reassures us that despite the topic – the aftermath of a student suicide attempt – she is not out to harrow us pointlessly.  Nor, indeed, to make the mother a joke:  not long afterwards we learn about her own father’s depressive illness, her own episodes and her terror that genetically  Sam’s self-harm and death wish are her fault. And as the boy tartly informs them all, neither can it be simplistically put down to the divorce. 

         Jonathan McGuinness’ beautifully underplayed Tim is clearly the last man who should have married Rita  ( airheaded emotional incontinents rarely do well alongside self-made venture-capitalists who don’t talk much).   But Tim gets his moment too, in a session without his wife in the room: in a heart-wrenching two-hander with Ragevan Vasan’s Sam the pair confront like old and young stags, until  under the therapist’s careful prompting the older man reveals the postwar-chilly, restrainedly British family background which never taught him to be a warm  Dad.  Wrenched out of him at last is the line “I don’t care what he does or who he is, as long as I don’t have to bury him”.  The lad’s response to an unaccustomed fatherly hug which made some of us cry into our masks was a bracing “Well, that was fucking weird!”.  Whereon we snivelled even more.

         Each family member has their moment, either questioning or drawing out the mystery  of Sam’s desperate discomfort with the human condition. For suicidality always is, to survivors, necessarily a mystery. And   there is electrifying power in the sudden admission of  Ashna Rabheru’s Sofia   “I’m tired of trying to keep you alive” .  Indeed: in these stories we do not often hear the sibling’s accusatory  pain.

        But the beauty of the play is that with or without acquaintance with such darkness almost any family will find fragments of itself in it.  Absurdity, delusion, failures in tact and understanding, wrong words at bad moments,  competition,  expectation, disillusion, and ultimately love. Nor does it promise cosy redemption: Sam is still, as we leave him standing more upright and outward-facing,  the same young man. He still has the mess of life to confront. 

       It’s well-paced (director Lucy Morrison)  with  peaks and valleys of intensity,  its language perfectly pitched, its emotion honest, the five cast flawless.   Yet another in Hampstead-Downstairs’ remarkable spring run of hits.          

 Hampsteadtheatre.com. Extended to 2 April.   

Rating four

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THE WOODS Southwark Playhouse, SE1

NOT A FINE ROMANCE

    Mamet plays are Marmite plays. You can applaud Speed the Plow, adore Wag the Dog on screen, and have a pleasurable argument with the opposite sex after a particularly vicious Oleanna (Lucy Bailey directed David Mamet’s campus shocker with brio at the Arts in August, and a fearsome treat it was).   But Mamet can also irritate the hell out of you with his characters’ inspissated conversations about themselves.   So with marmitic caution and curiosity I approached this half-forgotten one from 1977, long before he got his Pulitzer. The Southwark Playhouse is often a good digger-up of forgotten gems of any century. Always worth a try.

     Certainly the quality is here, applied with rigour though to what turns out to be a pretty ho-hum 100-minute duologue.  Two barely likeable young people have  a weekend in a forest cabin and discuss their relationship, Nature, and his random childhood memories about a bloke who said he was kidnapped by Martians.  This, and a convincing – if repetitive  – mutual sexual pawing    transforms them before our eyes from happy-camper friends  to brawling, disintegrating hysterics.   Both are excellent:  note-perfect in the depressing characters they are given.   Sam Franchum has far less to do verbally but gives a masterclass in grumpy male body language, but Francesca Carpanini as Ruth utters from the start a torrent  of free-form, rambling remarks about moods, nature, fish,  grandparents, and how she has always dreamed of being with a lover in the country in the night and has brought him a mystery present .  In moments of irritation at his inattention, she mentions how he once said  he loves her but  “doesnt know who she is”.    

              You fight in your audience corner an urge to tell her to cool it, and advise both these kids that the next weekend a deux they would do well to take a good book each and give the chat a rest .    But Carpanini  holds it brilliantly,  swinging her arms around, gangling like an adolescent one minute,  clearly irritating the hell out of Frenchum’s moody Nick.  When she shrieks “A raccoon!” – hardly an amazing thing in American woods, frankly, they’re like squirrels here –  he does at least rouse himself with a worry that it might get at the garbage , before slumping back into his moody silence.

       Sometimes their mutual lust creates a change of mood – though late on, a briefly nasty one on his part – and there is interest for a while in the possibility that he might actually murder her for the sake of a bit of quiet.    He does take a swing at Ruth, which we are supposed to be deeply shocked by though in fairness she was attacking him unprovokedly with an oar at the time.  But in the first movingly truthful bit of the whole play  he reveals his terrified fear of being left alone.  And as women often resignedly do she becomes motherly. 

           It’s quite an unnerving end, which I suppose is what Mamet wanted.  But it’s hard to care enough or laugh enough or feel enough, despite the great skill of both young actors, who deserve better, and the Southwark’s remarkably good pricing considering the talent involved.    Russell Bolam directs and Anthony Lamble’s woodland cabin design is pleasing.  But I’m not sure it was worth digging this one up just for the Mamet name.    

Southwarkplayhouse.co.Uk To 26 March. 

rating three

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COCK Ambassadors Theatre, WC2

LOVE AS AN UNCOURTLY CONTEST 

 

  In 2009 – and again in Chichester 2018 – I missed Mike Bartlett’s mischievous, half-earnest play about a gay man wrestling with his identity (and his furious partner) after falling for a woman.  Who he loves both as a person and – to his confusion – as an anatomy.  Clever to revive it in this even more gender-anxious time:  Marianne Elliott directs with her familiar paciness (it’s 95 minutes), thre’s an artful moves-choreographer in Annie-Lunnette Deaken-Foster, and a double-revolving,mirror-lined space-age crescent of a set, with weird neon torpedoes overhead, created by Merle Hensel.  An avant-garde spectacle for a play about basic biology, if you like.

       The protagonist’s problem is obviously a good one to chew over in our age of self-involved identity angst, though it is fascinating to note that even 13 years ago the characters’ ideas were binary:  you were gay, straight or at a pinch bi. No LGBTQIZ+ then.  The cast are superb  (there are actually  4 of them, but no spoilers for the new generation: the final entrant is a snortingly funny shock).  Jonathan Bailey is the wavering lover,  a bearded man-child of unformed, anxious personality.   Taron Egerton, rare in the theatre but utterly at home,  gives the lover a lovely dry, sarky, controlled vulnerability with deadly timing always,  and the splendid Jade Anouka is the woman.

        Notably, only the central cock-owning protagonist gets a name – John – while his boyfriend is listed as M and the woman  W.  They are not ciphers by any means but the device  underlines – like the naively crass line“her vagina is amazing” – a sense the little scrote’s personality and tastes reside predominantly below the belt.   He is in fact choosing people,  but thinks he is choosing a sexuality.   The exercise of which with W is, by the way, marvellously evoked by a very distanced but definitely erotic – and funny – sequence making full use of the double revolve.  If you’ve ever felt your love affair is going round in circles… 

    The story evolves in flashback and forward through the progress of John’s dilemma, culminating in a ferocious, foodless  but horribly convincing fight over him.  In which the  pleasure and real pain is sharpened by the increasing evidence that John  is not worth the battle.  As his male lover accurately says early on:   “You’re a stream. I need a river”.  John barely grows at all, while  Egerton’s M evolves in stature and dignity as you watch. He is queenily bitchy, sweetly sad, older and more centred and real than John.  Anouka is too:  cleverly, her appeal is way beyond sexual to John as she talks of children, a long future, family Christmases: a chimera but an acknowledgement of old and basic longings  (note that gay marriage was still five years ahead in England, civil partnerships only four years old and rare.  Gay families for most were still a dream).

       It also becomes clear, to the amusement of women in the audience , that John’s problem is partly that M is, though loving,  sarky and critical by nature, while W is ” gentle” and makes John feel good about himself. Thunder and lightning, is that what women are for?   Buttering up unworthy and childish men?   Perhaps some naturally sarcastic gay men watched this in 2009 and preserved their relationships by thinking  “hmmm, yes, maybe he does need more ego-boosting, better do the adoring wife thing, the full Nancy Reagan gaze of admiration..”. 

     It’s a bracing evening, and will start much talk about gender fluidity, inner identity and moden free-floating sexualities. But face it, it is basically a play about the necessity of monogamy. If John had a spine, and an old fashioned manly morality,  he would have left M’s comfy flat and thought things  through alone for a bit longer, weighing where his love really lies.  It is the vacillating and torturing of both that is the deadly sin against love. Vaginas are the least of it, they really are…

box office  atgtickets.com   to 4 June

rating four 

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