Monthly Archives: April 2022

PRIMA FACIE Harold Pinter Theatre, WC1

SEXUAL ASSAULT , HARD LAW, AND AN ASTONING WEST END DEBUT

   Forget the cold sadistic clotheshorse Vilanelle from Killing Eve.  Actually, forget all Jodie Comer’s screen awards.  This extraordinary West End stage debut reveals not only strong vocal skill (something not universal in those best known onscreen) but an absolutely dazzling physical expressiveness and  high-voltage emotional power.  It feels as if she has been  pulling houses to their feet for decades –  utterly in charge in a mesmerising solo tour-de-force that never flags in 95 minutes. Vivid and vigorous, judged to a hair, and – for all the profound and shattered emotion of its climax – crackling with her native Liverpudlian wit, she is a phenomenon.   

        Moreover, Suzie Miller’s play is  one of the most important we shall see this decade.  It takes on the most troubling of gulfs:   the abyss in our culture between legal systems and safeguards for the innocent, and the difficulty of successfully prosecuting rape  in an age that licenses and celebrates the impetuous hook-up.   

      The legal term of the title translates as “At first sight”, meaning what seems believable to anyone witnessing it.  Our heroine is a barrister, seven years in practice.  Coming from working-class roots she revels in her sheer skill at the game of law.   As the play opens Comer,  against pale neat walls of case-files stretching to the roof, leaps on and off leatherbound  tables in chambers and expresses , with gestures and imitations and wily wit,  the professional delight of winning a case.  It becomes clear that she is getting a name for defending men accused of sexual assault.  

    There are flashbacks to her beginnings, self-doubting amid the poshos in law school,  visits to her office-cleaner Mum in Liverpool,  but the focus is on her achievement now. Forget the nerdy corporate lawyers, she likes the hard human battles.  “Got two sexual assaults – I”ll get ’em off – one has PTSD from Afghanistan – “.  Her glee draws you to her point of view for a while, arguing that even if the guy was guilty,  it is just her lawyerly job to tell his story well. The law of course pivots, terrifyingly,  on whether a man “believed” there was consent.  

         Then she has a happy hookup in the office with her colleague Julian, and after a successful dinner date takes him home, and they make love. But she is drunk.  So drunk the sake gets to her and she vomits, feeling weak and dreadful. And he carries her back to bed, apparently caringly, but moments later the rape takes place.  Comer’s skill is almost horrifying as without shedding a stitch she shows us how it was: held down, in pain, confused.   In an extraordinary scene she throws on a dress from the spare room, unable to face him again, and runs out into real sluicing rain in a dark stage. The comforting tidy familiar walls of legal filing have vanished (Buether’s set as ever plays a key atmospheric role).   

    We see the police interview, its tone, its uselessness, the horror of the fact that as she tells her pain and confusion the man is still asleep in her flat.  Professional instinct tells her “this is a losing case”.  

       Above, words saying DAY 1 make us expect to spring, as a TV drama would, straight to the court. But then it rolls on to Day 782.  Because in Britain now, that is about what victims have to  expect.  Two years of misery, self-reproach, awkwardness,  reproof on behalf of Julian “who is a good guy, does a lot of pro bono”.  

     Finally in court, the scene of her old triumphs suddenly an unfamiliar lonely place ,  she is in the witness box.   Intellectually she knows she is being “reeled in” by an artful defence counsel just as she once reeled them in. But  “This is me.  A system I devoted my life to is called upon, by me..”.  

     It fails. They often do.  In cases like this we can only marvel at the courage women find to carry on.  Both were drunk, both enthusiastically consensual partners on the same night…nobody else there, no marks of violence.  So two years later that she must argue about every action, every body part’s position…  

      Philosophically, legally, she finds her professional voice again to argue – in a final coda more politically passionate than strictly dramatic – that something must change in such cases.  Is this demand for detailed consistent recall by a harmed victim of two years before “really the litmus test of credibility?”  

       It is a remarkable and useful play. But what brings it to life is that truly  astonishing performance.  TV and film will line up to recruit Comer, but that wooden stage , sharing breath with a riveted silent throng in the dark, is where she belongs. She is astounding.

Box office http://www.atgtickets.com.   To 18 June. You might JUST be lucky to get one

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BARRY HUMPHRIES ; THE MAN BEHIND THE MASK Touring towards London

HALF A CENTURY OF HAPPY MISCHIEF

Full disclosure: I have been following this man around for the best part of 50 years. Went with my brother Mike to his first show, Housewife Superstar, at the Apollo in the 70s, drawn as fans of his Private Eye cartoon strip.  Stalls tickets severely denting a first job wage,  we stood with the gladioli Edna Everage had hurled,  to obey the final command “Tremble your gladdies!”. We went to every London show since, including the Last Night of the Poms at the Albert Hall where we lustily sang her anthem “Why do we love Australia?”.  Trembled in fear  many times as Edna strafed the front stalls with audience-participation moments. Saw  the Palladium “farewell”, all of nine years ago ( https://theatrecat.com/tag/eat-pray-laugh/) ,  and the non-Edna show about Weimar music ( https://theatrecat.com/2018/07/26/barry-humphries-weimar-cabaret-barbican/.

       Oh, and there was an unforgettable 2011 panto debut in which Edna flew across the auditorium on a giant possum. . 

 So here I am at Humphries’ feet again. He is 88, five shows in to a 27-date tour:  this time he is presented as himself,  the trickiest character of all.  Grandfatherly in a velvet jacket, he is joined only by Ben Dawson at the piano to play some  nostalgic snatches to move the mood on (though the pianist, clearly the New Madge, is seen in a pinny hoovering and dusting the stage as we settle down. Just one of those Barry gags). 

     He is here to tell us his life story, or tantalizing bits of it. Old photographs in a gilt frame above him pepper the first half: childhood in genteel Melbourne,  misdemeanours, first moments on stage , a shy Orsino embarrassed by his tights,  a  Coward hero disastrously drying mid scene.  Glimpses of his mother as “mistress of the vocabulary of discouragement”, and the multiple aunts and lady mayoresses on smalltown tours who all, somehow, collectively became Edna. He speaks of misjudged performances, arcane acting tips  picked up and the comedian’s rule:    as with a skidding car, when disastrous embarrassment or offence looms because you misread someone, just “steer straight into it!”.  Making it worse might make it better. Less brave comics might learn from that.  

    Unease at Australian success made him “need obscurity and total neglect”.  Finding it in London he got work, as actor and cartoonist,   but also in the ‘60s hit the bottle and spent time in a secure “hospital for thirsty people”. 

         Waves of affection lap around him, the laughs  skilfully provoked during apparently meandering departures or brief conversations with the front row. And they are good laughs, professional:  because as he remarks in one of the few bitchy  comments, nowadays comedians ” don’t have to be funny. You  just have to identify as funny”. Ouch. 

    The second half explodes into some video of Edna in her pride, leading a singalong in the RAH and in a series of interview and talk-show moments over decades.  These include, with a historical frisson, a young Trump and a midcareer Boris Johnson talking rubbish about reclaiming Aquitaine and Burgundy, and being patronized as someone unable to learn from his own mistakes. Ouch again. 

         A passage of Edna condemning the “sick” habit of “female impersonation” by Barry strikes a refreshingly  gender-critical note.  We see him with Charles and Camilla and  Elton and have  commentary on it all from the man himself. There is a  modest,oddly decent acknowledgement  former alcoholism and the weight of it on others, and of being too grandiose to go to AA at first “because it was free”. 

     That leads to  a moment that shakes you out of comedy and into something greater:  the realization 53 years ago when he finally “put the cork in the bottle”,  that without it he was happy.    Just happy. And still is. 

   And looking back on all the years of fandom, I saw that this is why so many of us stuck with him, and will until the terrible day when he has to go.  Through Edna’s divine appallingness and patronising insults, Les Paterson’s vintage disgustingness and  every moment onstage and screen , this was why we wave our gladioli in fealty.  Like another legendary comic,  it is pure   happiness he stands for and spreads. And we rise to our feet for that.

www.manbehindthemask.co.uk. Touring UK, a dozen more dates, including a new one at   the Gielgud Theatre on Sunday June 12

out of lifelong gratitude

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HENRY VI REBELLION: and THE WARS OF THE ROSES Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

NOW THE TWO PLAYS TOGETHER

  1. HENRY VI: REBELLION.       

ENGLAND IN FERMENT, AND SOME DANGEROUS WOMEN

      We are in the 1450s, in a dangerous doldrum: Henry V of Agincourt is long dead,  his stripling son married to  pretty French Margaret of Anjou but still as a lad ruling under the Lord Protector, his uncle Gloucester.  Who is, of course,  resented by the usual stroppy court of nobles. These are encountered round a gorgeous banqueting table as we join them, beefing about France and one another.  

     The Bishop of Winchester (a fabulously weathered, sharp-eyed Paola Dionisotti)  is clearly up to no good;  the new Duke of Suffolk who negotiated  the marriage is out for his own ends; Oliver Alvin-Wilson as York is showing promise of starting the future war of the roses,    and still more excitingly, the Protector’s wife  Eleanor – a diminutive but ferocious Lucy Benjamin in a pearl headdress reminiscent in form of Ena Sharples’ hairnet – is plotting,  in the style of a proto-Lady-Macbeth,  for her honourably reluctant spouse to seize  power.  

      Shortly she gives it even more of the soap-opera touch in a passing brawl with the young queen, and hires a tame wizard to call up a disembodied  – prophetically blood-dripping – head from a sudden trapdoor before being arraigned, raggedly defiant,  and finally striding off to doom with her alarmed warder without dropping any of her innate menace.  Bravo to Benjamin in this her debut RSC season…

     Luckily,  this sense of out-of-control female agency (always good in a warlike macho history-play) is picked up with interest by Minnie Gale as the Queen,  as sneaky a foreign-born plotter as ever Shakespeare devised, who at a later point smiles treacherously over her petit-point while arguing the case for poor Gloucester handing over his power of protectorate.  She eventually snogs the equally treacherous Suffolk (Ben Hall)  and spends the rest of the play carrying his nastily removed head around, weeping openly over it to the visible discomfiture of her husband the King (Mark Quartley, an endearing performance of the devout well-meaning young monarch, looking about fifteen).  

And don’t accuse me of spoilers:  for one thing it’s a very old play, and for another we’re still in the first act:   haven’t even got to the fate of Gloucester, the young King swooning with his crown rolling about, a poison death, a  ghost, a battle scene with rope descents, barricades and a full-on rebellion of Kentishmen under a loutish Aaron Sidwell.  All of it fast-moving, and a good 80% comprehensible even to non-Shakespearian non-historians.  

     For one of the things the RSC does best – and has done particularly well under Gregory Doran – is the barnstorming-yet-learned Shakespeare history play.  Taking on the particularly awkward, and least familiar Henry VI sequence, the barnstorming element in the two plays (this and the Wars of the Roses, which we’ll come to next)  is  accentuated by having – beyond the professional cast of two dozen,  up to 93 members of its “Shakespeare Nation” volunteers and 19 young performers from the Next Generation group.  This enables scenes of populace, rebellion and warfare to be satisfyingly uproarious.  

     So under Owen Horsley’s direction (Doran himself oversees the season) the show clips along nicely on a bare set beneath moody monochrome projections to keep it moving, with suitable sounds from a brass and percussion and a couple of strings overhead.  It is slightly hobbled by the author’s original form, which means that the rivetingly personal politics of the male and female courtiers in the first parts are lost for a while in the rebellion scenes.

       But there is a particular and unexpected interest (to me, fairly ignorant of the play) in the emphasis on the populace’s hatred of learning and paperwork  – “Let’s kill all the lawyers” comes from this play,  with  the populace’s jeering contempt for Latin, for writing of any kind and for  ‘innocent lambs” skins being used as parchment and bees’ wax as seals on oppressive documents.  In the most brutal heads-on-sticks sequence,  torn pages rain down from the heights.  This may be a quiet message to government and Arts Council about the attrition of culture, who knows? 

        But all in all, given the difficulty of getting the ‘lesser’ history plays right for a modern audience, it’s a triumph.  Doran’s trademark in leadership here has always been , apart from deep care of the text,  clarity, vigour and storytelling élan. And  – as rather suggested above – no pompous reluctance to zhoosh  up the soap-opera elements of archaic court doings.  I enjoyed it.

Box office. Rsc.org.uk. To 28 may

and now –  

PART 2 – SEPARATE PLAY, BOOKED SEPARATELY BUT FOLLOWS ON: THE WARS OF THE ROSES    

     The two plays (made from the original three part Henry VI set) each stand alone, but if you have seen the first – above – there is pleasure in meeting many of them again,   and in addition the ominous figure of York’s youngest son,   one day to be Richard III.   The casting of Arthur Hughes – who in real life has a shortened and deformed arm – attracted some attention as disability-casting, because he will be Richard III here later in the year . But so far it is no tokenism:  he deploys a playful quality, an impish nastiness which makes me much look forward to Greg Doran’s production later this summer.   

     As to this second play (H VI was originally three plays, remember, and the RSC has neatly split it into these two ,  it is far more battle-heavy: brawling blokes from the start, sons avenging fathers and fathers their sons,  heavy clanging swords,  cut-off heads thrown and abused as well as put on sticks.  There are moments when unless you are an aficionado of stage fighting you may feel a bit sated,   and if the RSC went in for trigger warnings it would have taken up half the programme, what with the truly nasty murder of a terrified child Rutland (York’s son) and almost equally unpleasant stabbings throughout. 

       But whenever that happens we come to some tremendous, character-driven face-off :  gentle Henry knighting his son, saying “learn this lesson, draw thy sword in right” (some hopes, in this play).   Or  Minnie Gale as the Queen even more poisonous than before in a breastplate and skirt,  taunting the captured York with a cloth dipped in his son’s blood, pulling it from her garter to do so;  spurts of mutual hatred between them, making even the Queen momentarily flinch, doubled up at a holy curse.  It is thrilling, as the young Shakespeare feels his poetic power and sense of drama evolving by the line. Or there’s York himself earlier, lounging on the throne forcing Quartley’s even more endearingly nice King Henry to disinherit his son.       Feral metaphors spring up: the monarch a “trembling lamb environed by wolves”,  York as a bear savaged by dogs.  

            It’s high-quality melodrama: there are odd almost farcical interludes among the bloodshed –   Paola Dionisotti’s Exeter amusingly politic in a shrug about the succession;   Henry in his Scottish exile with a couple of disbelieving hooded locals,  flinging off his cloak and departing nude  (Quartley’s performance has by  now made us all very much on his side: not a heroic monarch but a sweet lad). And there’s a  directly funny scene when Warwick goes to France (Richard Cant a rather camp King Louis) to sue for a royal marriage for the new  King Edward, old York’s son –   only to change sides  in a huff when betrayed by the fact that York has already married.  

     More use is made in this half of the roaming camera onstage showing huge monochrome closeups on the screen above :  it works, absolutely, surprisingly to me who is usually a bit irritated by such stuff.  And young York,  our future Richard III,  gets to borrow a speech or two from his own eponymous play, which is neat and gets its own round of applause.  

box office rsc.org.uk to 4 Jun

rating four

BUT  – A JOINT RATING FOR THE TWO- BECAUSE SEEING THEM ONE AFTER ANOTHER IS A GREAT BUZZ –  IS   5 MICE IF YOU MAKE IT THROUGH BOTH:

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HENRY VI: REBELLION.        Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford u-Avon

ENGLAND IN FERMENT, AND SOME DANGEROUS WOMEN

      We are in the 1450s, in a dangerous doldrum: Henry V of Agincourt is long dead,  his stripling son married to  pretty French Margaret of Anjou but still as a lad ruling under the Lord Protector, his uncle Gloucester.  Who is, of course,  resented by the usual stroppy court of nobles. These are encountered round a gorgeous banqueting table as we join them, beefing about France and one another.  

     The Bishop of Winchester (a fabulously weathered, sharp-eyed Paola Dionisotti)  is clearly up to no good;  the new Duke of Suffolk who negotiated  the marriage is out for his own ends; Oliver Alvin-Wilson as York is showing promise of starting the future war of the roses,    and still more excitingly, the Protector’s wife  Eleanor – a diminutive but ferocious Lucy Benjamin in a pearl headdress reminiscent in form of Ena Sharples’ hairnet – is plotting,  in the style of a proto-Lady-Macbeth,  for her honourably reluctant spouse to seize  power.  

      Shortly she gives it even more of the soap-opera touch in a passing brawl with the young queen, and hires a tame wizard to call up a disembodied  – prophetically blood-dripping – head from a sudden trapdoor before being arraigned, raggedly defiant,  and finally striding off to doom with her alarmed warder without dropping any of her innate menace.  Bravo to Benjamin in this her debut RSC season…

     Luckily,  this sense of out-of-control female agency (always good in a warlike macho history-play) is picked up with interest by Minnie Gale as the Queen,  as sneaky a foreign-born plotter as ever Shakespeare devised, who at a later point smiles treacherously over her petit-point while arguing the case for poor Gloucester handing over his power of protectorate.  She eventually snogs the equally treacherous Suffolk (Ben Hall)  and spends the rest of the play carrying his nastily removed head around, weeping openly over it to the visible discomfiture of her husband the King (Mark Quartley, an endearing performance of the devout well-meaning young monarch, looking about fifteen).  

And don’t accuse me of spoilers:  for one thing it’s a very old play, and for another we’re still in the first act:   haven’t even got to the fate of Gloucester, the young King swooning with his crown rolling about, a poison death, a  ghost, a battle scene with rope descents, barricades and a full-on rebellion of Kentishmen under a loutish Aaron Sidwell.  All of it fast-moving, and a good 80% comprehensible even to non-Shakespearian non-historians.  

     For one of the things the RSC does best – and has done particularly well under Gregory Doran – is the barnstorming-yet-learned Shakespeare history play.  Taking on the particularly awkward, and least familiar Henry VI sequence, the barnstorming element in the two plays (this and the Wars of the Roses, which we’ll come to next)  is  accentuated by having – beyond the professional cast of two dozen,  up to 93 members of its “Shakespeare Nation” volunteers and 19 young performers from the Next Generation group.  This enables scenes of populace, rebellion and warfare to be satisfyingly uproarious.  

     So under Owen Horsley’s direction (Doran himself oversees the season) the show clips along nicely on a bare set beneath moody monochrome projections to keep it moving, with suitable sounds from a brass and percussion and a couple of strings overhead.  It is slightly hobbled by the author’s original form, which means that the rivetingly personal politics of the male and female courtiers in the first parts are lost for a while in the rebellion scenes.

       But there is a particular and unexpected interest (to me, fairly ignorant of the play) in the emphasis on the populace’s hatred of learning and paperwork  – “Let’s kill all the lawyers” comes from this play,  with  the populace’s jeering contempt for Latin, for writing of any kind and for  ‘innocent lambs” skins being used as parchment and bees’ wax as seals on oppressive documents.  In the most brutal heads-on-sticks sequence,  torn pages rain down from the heights.  This may be a quiet message to government and Arts Council about the attrition of culture, who knows? 

        But all in all, given the difficulty of getting the ‘lesser’ history plays right for a modern audience, it’s a triumph.  Doran’s trademark in leadership here has always been , apart from deep care of the text,  clarity, vigour and storytelling élan. And  – as rather suggested above – no pompous reluctance to zhoosh  up the soap-opera elements of archaic court doings.  I enjoyed it.

Box office. Rsc.org.uk. To 28 may

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JERUSALEM REVIVED: REFLECTIONS

DO WE STILL LOVE ROOSTER?

   So it’s back, another St George’s day before a west country village fair.   Twelve years on from Jez Butterworth’s glorious shock-troop assault on metropolitan sensibilities we welcome back Ultz’s woodland glade and knackered caravan,  and surf along with Ian Rickson’s bravura direction.  Here once more are the  council officials slapping an enforcement notice on the rave wreckage and the filthy sofafull of hungover teens .  Here is the court of Johnny Rooster Byron.

       And Mark Rylance is back, twelve years after his first handstand dive into the water-butt I am happy to report that he still executes it with undimmed vigour, deftly another egg into a disgusting hangover-cure, mixes it  in his atrocious trousers’ and necks it before embarking on a dozen crazy yarns  and archaic bucolic-alcoholic spiritualities,  whether about giants walking or Nigerian traffic wardens kidnapping him.     Around him return four veterans of the 2010 run: Mackenzie Crook is once more the aspiring DJ and unemployed plasterer, Ginger,  Alan David the “Professor”, vague but prophetic pet distressed-gent of the rowdying teens,  and Gerard Horan as the pub landlord forced into spoless Morris gear for the brewery’s  publicity .  

           The rants, the vigour, the laughs, the shock are all there, and the undercurrent of anger at modernity’s callous uniformities (Davey’ s speech about his abattoir job, and Lee’s hopeless dream of emigration, both hit as hard as they did even before the Osborne austerity years)

      .  This is no review – no idea if there is even a press night,  I booked the day it was announced and the run is sold out already.  But it is  a reflection. In 2018  I saw the Watermill’s fine revival with Jasper Britton.  I had wanted to see if the play worked without the magic Mr  Rylance, and whether it had a new taste after the Brexit vote. Yes in both  cases. ( https://theatrecat.com/2018/07/07/jerusalem-watermill-nr-newbury/)  

        Now, on the far side of the pandemic, there’s another  new flavour which proves how well the play will endure as a classic.  One becomes aware of the altered palate of national taste after MeToo (it’s a very macho play, male predation taken for granted. Not all the shag-jokes got a warm response).  But more than that,  we have over two years been cabin’d and confined by regulations and jobsworth enforcers,  banned for months of restless springs from what the rural teens call “Gatherings”.    Would we, I wondered, feel that we are all Rooster Byron now? Angrily festive, heedless of health and law, rebels asserting our damaged individuality by breaking all social rules for liberty? 

         Oddly,  for me the opposite sense  kept rising in the first half. Rooster Byron is a classic Lord of Misrule:  a  charismatic, amusing, hedonistic, dishevelled , insouciant law-breaker with a preference for younger women over the tedious duties of family.     And I kept thinking “hang on!  We’ve GOT  one of those, in Downing Street. And we’re liking it less and less…”

       Hadn’t expected that feeling: interesting. Boris as a genteel Rooster, though more Bullingdon-and-Spectator than pig-killing and pub fracas.   But however you come out of it, it remains  a hell of a show.  Might as well exorcise our national weakness for wild, irresponsible, disorderly charisma in a theatre: better than doing it in than a ballot box.

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THE 47th Old Vic SE1

THE ORANGE MONSTER RIDES AGAIN

  The first thing to say is what everyone has said:  that Bertie Carvel as Donald Trump is magnificent. Eerily so,  capturing not only the ex-President’s showmanship, the gestures and unwholesomely needy yet threatening charm – gosh he is funny at times! –   but moving beyond caricature into something devilishly close to possession. At least if, like me in one of the too-close cheap stalls, you are near enough to field his stray golf-ball in the opening scene.  He also gives it just a tiny edge of camp, which I had not noticed in the real Trump but now,  looking back at old newsreels,  realise was always there. So this is Carvel’s show: the man who was both Murdoch in INK and the original Miss Trunchbull in Matilda.  May he be many other villains, up to and including Lear.   

        The premise of the play is that Biden’s term is ending,  the aged President himself losing it (a remarkable sleepwalking scene, one of the many Shakespearian echoes).  He hands over to Kamala Harris,  played with gripping sincerity by,  who in her confrontations with the Donald, who is attempting re-election,  grows in stature satisfyingly  through the play , as it accelerates from a frankly too slow opening half-hour.  Kamala grows in the later scenes into gritty liberal determination and moral struggle, after  being mansplained into silence in a TV debate – he walks out, having set his ghastly militia to fireworks and mayhem outside and crying  “ Don’t let them tell you what to do, OK?“  

 So Tunie is a treat,  and so is Lydia Wilson as Ivanka,   the Cordelia-substitute in his first Lear-like division of deputy powers.   She turns out, no spoilers,  to be far cannier and far more ruthless than her drippy brothers,   and to hold, rather horribly, the solution to Trump the Father himself.  As for spectacle,  enlivening a play about political ideas and the limits of political morality, the solution as so often is in the hands of director Rupert Goold and designer Miriam Buether.  Indeed the two young Americans next to me were wincing heavily (“I’m scared now”) at the explosion of violence when the first half hots up,  and there is a very nasty ritual dance of threat  around Joss Carter as that man in the facepaint and horns from the Capitol siege,  taunting a “MSM” mainstream media reporter to speak their “truth” on video: “Say it – cheating Hillary, murdering husband, stole election, vaccine!”

I have to admit I was a bit of an outlier , a sceptic. about Mike Bartlett’s first foray into Shakespearian iambic-pentameter and artful echoes in his play Charles III.  I  found the blank verse monotonous and the characters unbelievable – with the exception of one splendid onlooker who defined how strange Britain will feel, how disconnected and lost,  when the Queen dies.  Nor did I much like the veiled ghost of Diana: it all felt a bit too parasitically Tina-Brown-explains-the-royals for my taste.  But it was a great success,  and here,  with deliberate echoes of Shakespeare tragedies of more purport – the two Richards, Macbeth, and certainly Lear – there is more meat, more meaning, more threat and more thoughtfulness.   It goes from a slow start to accelerate nicely. The  the laboured iambics sometimes work well , because the five-foot line is a natural English language emphasis  (“You democratic motherfucking cunts!” Cries Trump).     But they also sometimes make the dialogue,  or speeches,  feel artificial. But it’s a novelty, a brilliant central performance, certainly one to see.

oldvictheatre.com.   to 29 May

Rating four 

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DIARY OF A SOMEBODY Seven Dials Playhouse W1

THE LOST BOYS OF THEATRE…

   The  tiny Actors’ Centre is reborn under its new name, and since this play is set in what was a  traditionally febrile, theatrical, subversively arty quarter in the 50s and 60s  before it got chichi, it’s a good place to remember Joe Orton and his killing by his suicidal, depressedly angry partner Kenneth Halliwell.  John Lahr’s painstaking and sympathetic work on his diaries and interviews with those who knew him is more famously a book and film (“Prick Up Your Ears”). But there is special power in this staging: two men and a versatile set of four actors playing everyone else,  around a basic bedsit and a wall of Halliwell’s collages.  For all the merriment of Orton’s pitiless verbal observation (which gives the ensemble plenty to work with) it is as wrenchingly sad as it ought to be. 

    In the first scenes George Kemp as Orton is eager:  a new Londoner escaped from a dull Leicester home to RADA and a Gower St bedsit, casually mentioning someone called Kenneth – 7 years older, posher, not easy to understand – in the background. Then thirteen years on he is a feted playwright, delighted with himself, and even more delighted with his dick and his crazy-obsessive promiscuous linkups in random streets, Holloway pissoirs and trips to Tangier for “hash and bum”. Meanwhile Halliwell is ever more morose, jealous and frustrated by his beloved’s hedonism “your definition of a man is a life support system for a penis”.  Also,  most corrosive of all, Ken  is convinced that he alone has the credit for all that Orton is and all hewrites.  The misery of  jealousy in a partnership of unequal success and fame is timeless, whatever the sexuality. Many wives and husbands know it well.

    Soon they both make you cringe: Halliwell at his spiralling unhappiness, and Orton at his vanity and, frankly, paedophilia: it used to be a giggly gay pursiit both upmarket and down, arty westerners travelling to a poorer country to pay Muslim boys, often underage, for sex. There is darkness on Orton’s  irritation that in England  he cant just grab a friend’s pretty son and take him home to be raped. But these were the gay dark ages before full  social acceptability (it was only just legal before Orton was murdered) yet well before AIDS.   It spawned  a gay male culture too often unhappy, angry, uncaring and emotionally inhumane. We  do not properly remember Orton the boyish mischief maker s d brilliant, disciplined  comic playwright without remembering that.

    You begin to see Halliwell too as one of that culture’s saddest victims (Toby Osmond is superb, holding the pain visible to the point that his amiable grin at the curtain call is a relief). But the vigour of the staging, and fine performances, leave you exhilarated as well as sad.

sevendialsplayhouse.co.uk to 30 April

rating three

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“DADDY”



QUEER AS FOLK BY THE INFINITY POOL

Jeremy O Harris is a much feted American playwright (a Tony for Slave Play) adept at drilling in to the moment:  BLM, fashionable white guilt, showy theatricality and retro-intellectual themes like this play’s deliberate reference to Hockney’s 1960’s  A Bigger Splash. And, the programme assures us,  the cult of the male body in the post-coldwar years and   “the queer gaze in modern American history”.   He specifies an infinity pool on stage, and  a Palm Beach mansion with glass walls and lots of challenging modern art in view. . 

    So here it is, with a beautiful very young black man – Terique Jarrett  – stepping out of the water in Speedos. And soon, for the benefit of an older white man who worships  his “Naomi-Campbell”  legs, stepping equally gracefully out of the Speedos.   The boy from the wrong side of the tracks,  Franklin,  isn’t just a pickup, of course. They speak of art ,because he is an aspiring artist with a show coming. Claes Bang’s Andre, the swooningly keen and apparently English  homeowner, is a collector.  A brief  moment of dignity for the lad  comes when he is sent to look at another room and, rightly, appalled that there is a whole roomful of Basquiats, crassly all together  (I found myself nostalgic for the Young Vic’s far more engaging and intelligent Basquiat link in The Collaboration-   https://theatrecat.com/2022/02/25/the-collaboration-young-vic-se1/)

      Anyway, Franklin is seduced, it seems for his  first time and not with total delight,  by Andre, who enjoins a bit of spanking, a “yes sir” response, and indeed “Yes Daddy” . It’s  all a bit  Harvey Weinstein , since the problem of young  bodies bought by rich old creeps with  flash houses and artistic influence applies to all sexualities.  Add to that the author’s contempt for black Christian tradition, in the comedic use of a three-woman gospel choir and.. well..it would have to be a good and gripping play to score.

  It isn’t. As it’s  is billed as “a Faustian melodrama of the soul” one hopes for a sticky end  for Andre and a bit of a proper plot, but alas as part 1 ends the  gospel choir is led by him in a crazed chorus in the pool , splashing the front rows as he leads them in “I will be your father figure, I will be your teacher preacher”. The mainly white audience claps and whoops along and I get really uncomfortable, because Jarrett   is a good enough actor to convey a lot of distress, puzzlement and anxious ambition. Though the director’s desire for tv-type naturalism does tend to mean that some of the pair’s conversations are borderline inaudible.

   The second half at least gives more scope to an excellent Sharlene Whyte as Franklin’s mother, who disapproves of the whole thing, and then it hauls in the question of missing black fathers (it seems, she says,  that they give up because they see how dark the future is for their sons). She is a bright spot in an otherwise overlong, ill-conceived and pretentious evening, as are the comic poolside moments of Jenny Rainsford as a ghastly galleriste,  a selfie-crazed Bellamy (Ioanna Kimbook).  and Franklin’s best friend Max. I asked a black American friend later about the Broadway fame and applause for Harris’ work and he replied that he hated it ,and that the writer’s main fans were “intellectual wokey whiteys”. A description so layered with eyerolling contempt it took my breath away.

Almeida.co.uk to 30 April

Rating two

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THE FEVER SYNDROME Hampstead Theatre NW3

SCIENCE, SIBLINGS, SOUND AND FURY 

   This is a satisfying play.  To take a painting analogy, it satisfies not in the way that a perfect still-life vase might, but more like a Kandinsky or Miro: wild streaks of colour, apparently random blobs,  intriguing shapes and blurs all resolving into something thrilling to look at.   Some may consider it a bit thematically crowded,  greedily bagging a whole seasons’-worth of anxious playwrights’ themes:   stepfamily and sibling issues, gene-editing and fertility, carers’ fatigue, terminal illness, patriarchy, gay parenthood, the politics of research-funding, Sarah Palin, Christian extremism, academic  plagiarism, money, housing, Japanese knotweed, goats. American regions and their faint contempt for one another,  and  a bit of househusband- resentment. All that plus a streak of crypto-Oedipal desire and  a few lines about cryptocurrency.

     Too much?   Not for me. I found Alexis Zegerman’s new play exhilarating, credible and suddenly deeply moving in its final catharsis (the last few minutes have two catharses and a disastrous revelation).   Lisa Dillon cradles  her sick child as if in a modern Pieta,  with a perfectly grouped family shape bent around her all for once listening to the old man speaking (tranquilly for once) of miracles. Add to that the fact that it is often painfully funny, with sharp American west-coast wit and a blast of Tom Lehrer, and I left very happy.

       Framing the pattern is the family’s head, the  fictional Professor Richard Myers who is a  biomedical genius and (alongside the real,mentioned, Steptoe and Edwards) a pioneer of in-vitro fertilization (IVF).  Last time I saw Robert Lindsay onstage he was tipping his hat rakishly and shuffling a shoe in Anything Goes: now he is struggling to control the disease’s shaking, furiously resisting a wheelchair, and being spoon-fed by his younger third wife Meghan (Alexandra Gilbreath, every move showing anxious exhaustion).  They are still in the family home,   vast New York brownstone on the park which we see as a  three-tier cutout, peeling wallpaper and all,  its many rooms enabling small , economical filmic scenes between the various family members.  In  the last moments  it even reveals it has an attic and a cellar.  

    Lisa Dillon as Dot, the eldest sibling, wants her father and disliked stepmother to do the sensible thing and live somewhere “appropriate”, but she also is rackingly desperate that it  should provide a trust fund for her daughter, who has the dangerous autoimmune disease of the play’s title.  Her twin brothers, triumphs of the father’s IVF technology, are chalk and cheese: Thomas is a gay artist with lines like “I’ve spent a lot of money in analysis to be able to say this”, and has has brought along an exasperated pragmatic MidWest partner, Philip.  Anthony is a swaggering Californian entrepreneur who makes all but one of the party laugh: Alex Waldmann and Sam Marks play beautifully against each other.  The one who doesn’t laugh is Nate, husband of  Dot, who embarrassingly was disgraced for academic plagiarism, and has trouble with his more successful science-journalist wife as well as with her obsessive anxiety about their daughter.  All these people – except Philip the wary newcomer to the crabby family scene – need something from Professor Richard. 

           Robert Lindsay,  the powerful figure of the Professor, is stunningly good, both in his alarming temper and impatience (Thomas recalls his frightening heavy footsteps from childhood) and in moments of vulnerability. Once,  early on when we mainly think him a troublesome stubborn gargoyle of an invalid,  he turns his head suddenly to cradle his wife’s hand on his neck.  He rants politically about the status of embryo research and its opponents – “I certainly did NOT unravel the fabric of American society!”   Without authorly anger or agenda, and under the elegant direction of Roxana Silbert,  in just under three enjoyable hours it lays before us the hundred messinesses of a 21st century family feeling its way to resolution. And for me that itself is a resolution. 

Hampsteadtheatre.com to 30 April

Rating.  Five. 

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PINAFORE Wilton’s Music Hall, E1

CAMPING ON THE PLANKING

At the Coliseum last autumn Gilbert and Sullivan’s seagoing Savoy Opera was immense, with a huge revolving ship, Les Dennis as the first sea lord, a massive chorus and orchestra, a Boris-on-the-zipwire moment and an irresistibly confident hornpiping tot. Here it is stripped down,  performed by one of  Sasha Regan’s  strapping all male casts in gym-kit costumes, larking around on bunks and, in the case of David McKechnie as Sir Joseph Porter, wearing truly cherishable sock- suspenders. 

        I have raved before about these pleasingly ridiculous, artfully underdressed Sacha Regan productions, which indeed were responsible for converting me to G and S at all.  The production  suits Wiltons’ decrepit music-hall grandeur perfectly,  with the thumping unpretentious piano, the silly-clever rhymes, knowing gender-bending costumes and drag-comic behaviour.  It isn’t purist and doesn’t need to be,  because the plots are absurd and the rhymes clever and they belong to all ages and sexes.

        But the important gloss is the slickness, the discipline, the sharp Lizzi Gee choreography(sometimes balletic, always expressive. These things elevate to artistry the sheer high jinks, which by the way are brilliant in the elopement scene.

         Men have a particular way of being funny – not always universally appreciated by women – but when we do ‘get it’ as amused, headshaking big sisters, it is magic.  It has to be said that musically the choruses and  male-character numbers are more thrilling than female solos, because falsetto is difficult to sustain attractively for long unless by the best-trained  of counter-tenors. Regan’s cast are excellent, but sometimes Sam Kipling as Josephine makes you feel a bit sorry for him having to do it,  as well as for her lovelorn state. The temptation to take it down an octave does creep over you.     Scott Armstrong as a beefy LIttle Buttercup has it easier, because you’re meant to be laughing rather than sympathising.  But you can forgive anything for the sheer ebullient vigour of it, for the sock-suspenders and bowler hat on Porter,   and the swing ensemble’s magnificent legs. 

rating  4 

wiltons.org.uk to  9 April

then  Winchester – (theatreroyalwinchester.co.uk) 21-27 April

Then, who knows..

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TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD Gielgud, W1

THE SHADOW OF A BEGINNING, ALABAMA 1936 

    

Forget, for the moment, both the fame and the the arguments over Harper Lee’s classic novel:  Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation is a freestanding triumph,  its poignancy, anger and argument perfectly pitched for our restless age of questioning not only the injustice of racism but  the perils of tolerance and the nature of  ‘allyship’.    Sorkin worked on this play in the age of Trump and of Black Lives Matter, and it shows.  A fusillade of trigger warnings  reminds us that it cannot be handled without numerous  racial slurs and acknowledgement of  violence, sexual and otherwise. for this is smalltown Alabama in the 1930s, held before us with 21c intelligence and sorrow. Sorrow for the way that despite the lawyer Atticus Finch’s sense of “the shadow of a beginning”,  we are not there yet.  

          Here the novel’s form is shaken up,   to put at its centre from the start the courtroom where Finch defends Tom Robinson from the charge of raping Mayella, the paternally abused teenage daughter of  angry, drunken Bob Ewell.  Scout, Jem and their pal Dil tell the story through the fourth wall with childlike directness as well as scampering,  playing and watching the steadfast idealistic Atticus go through the story. They stand mutely aghast, too in the courtroom in that torrid summer.  The brisk narrative breaches of the fourth wall do not for a moment detract from the power of the big dramatic scenes, both in court and most terrifyingly when Robinson is taken to the county jail,  in an obvious attempt facilitate the local Klansmen’s pre-empting any verdict with guns and rope.    Finch grabs a standard lamp (there is a wonderful domesticity of detail in Miriam Buether’s design, you live alongside them indoors and out).   As he meekly holds guard the murderers arrive: we are used to jokey images of the Ku Klux Klan in  pointed hoods but these are as they would have been:  murderers under scruffy flour-sacks.     When Scout innocently recognizes a voice of a classmate’s Dad her  childish  “Mister Callaghan?”  breaks the tension even as it reveals  the horrible truth about  how deeply ‘friends and neighbours’ have gone sour .   Brilliant.

        But much is brilliant, theatrically and morally, in Sorkin’s interpretation: Gwyneth Keyworth is a perfect dungareed Scout,  and the trio of her,  Jem and Dil (Harry Redding, a professional debut,  and David Moorst) have a teenage exuberance that defies the gloom and horror of the community.  And three  points in the adaptation  are important.  Firstly,  Sorkin gives Atticus more of a sharp dry lawyerly wit, half-consciously aware of the difficulty of holding onto his “some good in everyone” idealism.   Ralph Spall is extraordinary, both in evoking that, in his fatherly gentleness,  and in his single outbreak of violent rage.   Secondly, the adaptor puts into the mouth of the terrible Ewell (Patrick O”Kane) more rationalization of his racism than Lee did.  Every confected “fear” justifying the white community’s hatred of freed blacks is taken directly from modern Breitbart and other sites.  You shiver.    And finally, Sorkin gives more voice than Harper Lee to the black characters themselves.  This means not just the decent, too-humble Tom Robinson  but Calpurnia:    a fabulous Pamela Nomvete as the maid and substitute-mother in Atticus’ household.  She is  a sparring partner unconvinced by his saintlike philosophy that even the most vicious deluded racists should be respected as ‘neighbours and friends” with good in them.  When you’re respecting them,  she snaps,  “no matter who you’re disrespectin’ by doin’ it!” .  

            There are wonderful cameos too, enhancing the sense of a real community: Amanda Boxer is the abominable Mrs Henry Dubose, Jim Norton a  peppery Judge Taylor,  and Lloyd Hutchinson has a supreme late moment as the supposed town drunk,  with his harsh grieving intelligent kindness.  At the side of the stage a chapel harmonium and a lone guitarist play snatches of Adam Guettel’s understatedly powerful music. Your throat catches, often. 

       It is perhaps unfair,  but sometimes there’s  a reluctance to let oneself be moved to tears and driven to a standing ovation when a show is big-ticket, born and polished on its Broadway run with not an empty seat, and  when its producers were in 2019 so careful of their ownership of rights that they  would not tolerate even the humblest regional or amateur touring version of this famous tale.    But what the hell:  reluctance crumbled,  it had me by the throat .  Especially when, with Broadway sentimentality,  the last tragedy was met with a quiet congregation singing the words  “Joy cometh in the morning”.  And Calpurnia observed, saltily,  that it was takin’ it’s own sweet time.   So it is.

box office   tokillamockingbird.co.uk   to 13 August

rating five . No question.

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