Monthly Archives: May 2022

ORLANDO Jermyn St theatre WC2


A bit of a conversion experience for me, this. Disliked Woolf for years, Lighthouse and Waves and all, and therefore never read Orlando. Thought of it as a bit of neurotic whimsical Bloomsbury myth-making – which is not entirely wrong, but failed to discover that it is really funny and sweetly more simple and less angsty than the rest. “a writer’s holiday”, as Woolf herself said..  

      And this jolly adaptation by Sarah Ruhl, directed con brio by Stella Powell-Jones, is a 90- minute treat and holiday too.  And whoever found Taylor McClaine – fresh outa Dublin, a professional debut – needs an ovation.  This is an  Orlando any Woolf would gobble up. 

.   For thekid – pronouns they/them, which is appropriate and less annoying than it often is – is enchanting: boyish and ladylike in turns, rocking  agelessly from the Elizabethan court through Jacobean, Enlightenment and Victorian cultures and costumes (Emily Stuart’s   costumes for Orlando in both sexes are sumptuous, the chorus parts outfits historically-wittily nuts). 

      The rest too  are a hoot:  Skye Hallam as Sasha nicely glamorous with a ridiculous Russian accent, and –  forever changing hats –  three others: Tigger Blaize, Rosalind Lailey and Stanton Wright each with a physical comic edge and nimbleless in narrating and reacting that serve the tale beautifully.  It’s a squib, a jollity, but perfect in form. Good old Jermyn St. to 28 May

Rating. Five


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Traditionally, audiences don’t go to Oklahoma to be unsettled . On the other hand you don’t go to the Young Vic to have your expectations cosily met by a singalong, with the dark bits tastefully brushed over. This Broadway production, stripped down and  serious,  is full of fun but also astringently bracing and darkly sexy.  We are on three sides of a hall, wood from floor to roof:  a great tan background sketches the wide open spaces.  The front rows sit at long tables with crockpots and beer cans, around which chaps in chaps will soon be stamping, and ra-ra  skirts flouncing above your head. The small, club-scale  band plucks and tunes at one end. . All round the gallery walls are racks of rifles, a hundred of them, again on the pale tan wooden walls.  At first it feels like sitting inside a giant IKEA wardrobe. 

         But the cast are freed, wild. They approach the numbers as if they ,and we, had never heard them before, with many opportunities for percussive thigh-banging and stamping .  The story is taken as dangerously as any modem noir.   Marisha Wallace’ s Ado Annie is very funny , getting gales of laughter, but when the girl who cain’t say no confronts the chilly, virginally   uncertain Laurey  close up there is a real frisson of hostile mockery. As for Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill, reprising his Broadway role) , his troubling story is often hurried through as a joke in cosier productions,  but this Daniel Fish and Jordan Fein production throws everything at it – a full blackout with the sound of Curly’s nasty baiting contempt,  then an onstage-camera projection of the victim’s huge troubled face on the backdrop. Jud’s  own words about solitude and  needing a woman have pathos, but make him disconcertingly a clear forerunner and exemplar of every lone  sex killer in the news.  It always was a weird, uncomfortable bit of the show and this production majors on it. 

         Still,  most of the long first half is a riot, the small cast vigorous and rackety and real: Anoushka Lucas sings marvellously as Lauren, and Arthur Darvill is a heartbreaker; grounded by Aunt Eller (a magnificently tart Liza Sadovy with beautiful timing), the young lark beautifully. And it is always a pleasure to see the perennially terrifying Greg Hicks scowling with a shotgun on his lap and menacing poor Will. 

    The second half opens with the dream ballet putting an even stronger emphasis on the sexual dilemma as an  alt-Laurey in a shimmering short tunic – Marie Mence- dances with acrobatic, liberated, cartwheeling erotic frenzy in a cloud of smoke, freed in dreams (not least, we are thinking by now, by the menacing lust of the alarming Jud). The hoedown at the box-social is of course rumbustious, but for some reason there is a real deceleration in the show’s pace, some too-long significant plonking dramatic silences.  The bidding scene is tense , and heavy in its suggestion of it being totally a sexual auction. The light relief of the pedlar and will with Ado Annie  is all the fun it should be and fun and the front row  (especially men) get a great deal of attention.  But the last thing I had expected of such a vigorous production is the feeling that grew that it is, to be honest, too long.   Dramatic pauses fail to hold.  When it reaches, after nearly three hours, the big Oklahoma number we still have the even more problematic fate of Jud to face.  Which  is not the self-defence killing of the original but,  with Jud’s new gentleness,   Curley’s shot,  and the community’s  hastily fudged acquittal,  it feels almost like  a statement about America’s pioneer greatness being based  on gun power, dodgy legality, and being no place for durned outsiders who don’t know their place.        To 25 June

Rating four . 

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THE BREACH Hampstead Theatre NW3


   An empty basement in a working class Kentucky neighbourhood in the mid 70s.  An offstage adult world is preoccupied with unemployment,  the mained young conscripts back from of Vietnam and tricky-Dicky Nixon.  Down here  is a teenage kingdom,  and from the first moments its clear ruler is Jude:   just rising seventeen, going out to work as well as school to pay the electric bill before the lights go out again. She cooks meals her mother cannot cope with,  fiercely protects her younger brother Acton,  both of them grieving a father who fell from 14 storeys of scaffolding.   Shannon Tarbet’s Jude is  a marvel, every line of her thin body defiant as she makes sure to be as swaggeringly bravura and talk as dirty  as the lads her own age.  These are boastful rich-boy Hoke,  whose Dad will pull “strings” for him,   and oafish Frayne . 

       Jude is cutting a deal with them to use the basement as a sort of club, with ten dollars (from Hoke) involved but mainly in order to make them protectors – despite her disapproval – of  the clever 14-year-old Acton.  He’s an A-student who is horribly bullied at school but who helps with the big hunks’  coursework (Stanley Morgan is very touching in the role:, indeed ultimately heartbreaking: it’s a professional stage debut flawed only by the screen-naturalism which at times makes him less than properly audible. But that’s more the director’s fault than his). 

         Within twenty minutes we meet the older three again as adults, seventeen years later at a memorial to Acton. Whose life, we gather, was not good or prosperous despite all those As, and who had somehow lost touch with the sister who was his champion and protector.   There are conversations to be had about the past because  the teenage quartet’s  complicated world of  loyalty, hot neediness,  initial domination by Jude and consoling fantasy had moved inexorably towards something monstrous.    The fifteen minute event at the play’s core  is, in its teenage whisky-fuelled party- night “dare”  almost banal. But nonetheless,  monstrous. As adult Jude says near the end , the young think  they’re in control, can walk away from one bad thing but  “we’ve no idea of the size of the thing barrelling towards us, the incomprehensible momentum of it”. 

    Naomi Wallace’s new play gives that momentum an onward acceleration,  as the longer first half switches between the kids in the 1970s,  each scene revealing more of that summer, and the reunion in the 90s .   Hoke, inevitably, is an executive in a profitable healthcare corporation,  Frayne works for him, and the late Acton was evasively referred to as an “engineer” in the building, meaning handyman.   Despite all his straight-As.  Jude is a weekend  single mother whose daughter “lives with friends of mine”.  

        Something simmers between them.  In the flashbacks we find out how layers of betrayal and weird needy teenage ritual and swearings of friendship have damaged all four . Jude and Acton were damaged already in 1977: a sorrowful secret sibling rite is the “Falling game” where together they fantasise their father’s final moments as almost a triumphal superhero flight (Jennifer Jackson’s movement direction is superb).  Another touching ritual is their devotion to reading the Encyclopaedia,  whose subscription stopped at letter P when the family disaster struck.   

       In the adult scenes, Tom Lewis and  Douggie McMeekin are fine-tuned in emotional ambiguity as the men,  Jasmine Blackborow as adult Jud still, dignified,  her old fire now only smouldering.   The play is so elegantly tense its two hour exposition that I won’t reveal more.   Except to say that it plays a more honest, grim, ambiguous ethical tune than most current variations on its dark theme. 

      There are some good sour jokes, with Wallace’s American-born bitterness about health systems;   Hoke’s father’s health company has joked about calling it YANSAH – you are not sick, asshole! Or THATAB, Thats not a tumour its a bruise. And a wonderfully cynical angry comeback is his when Jude, for the only time, threatens to reveal exactly what happened at her seventeenth.  “It’s quite obvious”  orates Hoke, every inch the corporate man now,  “that you were and still are warped spiteful and of unsound mind – all of which, by the way, can be treated with medication…”

      Yes, quite a few US issues here. But the central one remains perennial, terrifying, universal and sorrowful:  the fragile tipping into disaster of teenage children unnoticed by adults.   To 4 June

rating 4

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    This is a beguiling  70-minute solo show from the actor, writer, wandering maverick entrepreneur  and China pundit Mark Kitto.  He plays three parts in sequence. First he is requiring us to visit the year 1912,  becoming a be-tweeded  Sir Claude Macdonald,  former Minister Plenipotentiary to Peking (as it then was called) with a silver-topped crane and lantern slides.  He is remembering the immense siege of the Legation during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion:   a populist uprising of resentful, anti-Christian bandits in which 2800 foreigners and locals survived 55 days in the diplomatic compound .   They lived, he cheerfully recalls,  on “horsemeat, rice and champagne” , the latter having lately been delivered.  

     Reflecting on the brutality of the Boxers, and demonstrating with an aged pistol how peasants were deceived into thinking their spirituality would make them invulnerable to bullets,  Sir Claude’s serious point is “We have got China wrong”.  He is condemning the Europeans’ harsh tendency of carving it up for profit over decades,  the Opium trade and shortsighted colonialism, and pointing out that foreign improvements – railways, churches, telegraphs – were always a mixed blessing to many.   The portrait of the siege itself is fascinating;  the insurgents creeping closer one barricade-brick at a time, and  at one point a letter from a later massacred child read out in her memory, the old man growing sentimental. 

      But then,  hobbling off,  he returns in the guise of Rong Lu, a sophisticated, weary Chinese commander in the Empress’ court.  He is ordered to send local soldiery alongside the Boxers,  but knows what a bad idea it is to massacre Europeans, and is deliberately taking it easy  – “Have you any idea how difficult it is NOT to win a one-side battle in 55 days?” .  Foul-mouthed, contemptuous, intelligent, this is the fascinating central character.  Irritatingly, some theatres won’t take the show on because a white man – however good his Mandarin and his knowledge = mustn’t impersonate a Chinese one.   Though heaven knows the Chinese commander is the brightest of the three.   

      Finally,  Kitto becomes a bemedalled sergeant of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers,  remembering the relief of the Legation and the subsequent, wholly disgusting, looting by legation occupants themselves and military of various European nations  (“Russians and Japanese, like a bit of executing don’t they? And the Germans, destroyed whole villages which had somehow escaped the Boxers”. 

     China is complicated and always feels alien,  its individuals often estimable, its potential immense,  but its systems strange and seemingly terrible.  Especially right now, with the crazy zero-Covid lockdowns in Shanghai, the enslavement and abuse of Uighur Muslims and its troubling response to Ukraine.   Kitto  – who lived and founded a business there before  leaving and being “very very banned”,  does a q and a afterwards:  that is equally fascinating,  but he does not have any simple answers,  and nobody will.    Still,  this is a show to see  because these moments of history absolutely matter  as pieces in anyone’s mental jigsaw of our hyperconnected modern world.  

          The show is wandering around, sometimes in one-night stands like the one I found near Beccles in Suffolk.  One of our audience was a chap who, as a boy, knew one of the relief troops.  It’s not that long ago, not really.   Try and catch it.     has tour details

rating four 

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      It is a curious feeling to be half charmed and half irritated by a production: one moment absorbed in a confrontation and engaged with a character, the next irritated by a gimmick of style. Dominic Cooke’s directorial decision is to hammer home the autobiographical nature of  Emlyn Williams’ powerful play, about a doughty bluestocking teacher starting a school for the ragged children of a 1920’s mining village.

       So we first see a Brylcreemed author in evening dress – Gareth David-Lloyd –  leaving a dance sweating, haunted by a  group of grimy-faced miners softly singing that most beautiful Welsh song Calon Lan.  He begins agonizing by a typewriter. And, to my increasing dismay, then hangs around narrating and delivering stage directions all through the act  like a film director, even with lights arranged at the side, while the cast bring on furnishings in a black-box space. He is building his past: fair enough, but he doesn’t half get in the way of it.

      The characters when allowed begin to enact the actual tale: the arrival of Miss Moffatt and her interaction with the dim local squire and mineowner, the frustrated flirty young Bessie and the stern Baptist Evans. She recruits  the latter two as teachers.   Enjoyment mounts, especially because Nicola Walker is fabulously posh-bossy and direct as the schoolmarm, and Rufus Wright comic and horribly credible as the Squire. The miners, always around, often hum or sing for a moment in heartbreaking harmony. Some become the pupils  learning. Battles are fought.

         But dammit, all the time the pesky author bustles about the stage with the same anxious hangdog expression, ordering the cast about and describing things .  Yet Williams is not Dylan Thomas, and the clunking memory-play idea  palls rapidly.  It is best when he fades into silent observation and the tale can properly catch fire – a splendid scene where Miss Moffatt bamboozles the squire into backing her pet scholar for an Oxford scholarship, and another when the scholar Morgan rebels against her English upper-middle saviourism.  And the characters who grow do so  well  – Walker explicitly, but more subtly, rather beautifully, there is development in Alice Orr-Ewing’s Miss Ronberry, a “surplus woman” of that post WW1 era suddenly finding usefulness and contentment.

    After the interval suddenly we have a full naturalistic set, blackboard and dresser and grandmother clock and all, and mercifully less direction from the author, still roaming about anxiously. The play’s dated quality shows itself with the inevitable one- night fling resulting in a potentially disastrous baby,  but the negotiations about everyones fate are deftly done, even if it does take the author to butt in.

     Theres a fine eloquent heartfelt moment when the lad  expresses the intellectual power and freedom he felt at his Oxford interview , and there is power in the argument over  the nature of duty. Its a hokum resolution, very JB Priestley,  but  in its 1930s terms it works (might watch the Bette Davis film now).   How the poorest get educated and enabled to rise in the world is, after all, still a hot topic today.  And the miners’ songs and hums are very beautiful.  To 11 June 

Rating three

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     Kayla Meikle, stalwart in Victorian dignity and Caribbean matriarchy, addresses us firmly at the start of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s manic, sometimes  chaotic play about the Jamaican Creole nurse, “doctress”  and hotelier, who in Victorian times tended cholera victims, travelled to America and later to the Crimea. She met Florence Nightingale only once for about five minutes, and spoke admiringly of her, but in recent times it has been – for understandable sociopolitical reasons – modish to set them up as rivals. One was posh and white and educated and revered by uppercrust Britain, the other black (albeit proud of her Scottish blood which she often mentions), and taught her doctoring by a traditional Jamaican mother. She was never officially on the strength as a nurse with the British army, but earned a living as a provisioner and hostess for officers as well as aiding wounded soldiers. 

     But  inevitably, given the contrast, this play joyfully gives us interludes of Nightingale scoffing at Mary, alongside other white  “Karens” down the ages who disrespect her. It’s  a time-travelling series of scenes where black female nurses and carers get devalued or patronised.

     So far, so polemic. But it is good polemic, lively and engaging (though it badly needs a trim, and  director Nadia Latif is far too indulgent to long static conversations). And the point is well made: many a woman of colour tends white invalids, elderly parents  and children while sorrowfully kept far from her own. The  money is still mostly in soft white hands, the blisters on black ones . And Seacole was a hell of an individual in anyone’s terms. 

     So it begins with Meikle delivering a witty, whistlestop account of Seacole’s childhood , unquenchable energy, total self belief and – not least –  passion for travelling to new scenes and being in camp  (the set is a series of curtains with envelopes and zips, half tent half hospital).  Then in a quick change onstage she becomes a modern care home nurse, while a fussy middle aged white daughter and fed up granndaughter try to engage with a seemingly comatose granny. Who, of course, only comes to life when the brisk cheerful nurses – Meikle and Deja J Bowens – arrive to feed and clean her. In a later sketch the two nurses – one a nanny, her own child an ocean away –  are being patronized by a whiney white American woman who just looooves Jamaica on holiday  and had some actual “ethnic food” and heard reggae there. Eyes roll.  

     And so on, until the long, climactic, dramatically screaming bloodbath of the Crimea (lots of bloodied torsos and random heads) .   “I am more of a mother to these men than their mothers in England!” she cries, and all the ghosts and echoes of the earlier encounters reappear, as do Mary’s own mother-issues . The old mother then gives a lecture on the “fiction of a merit based society” in the West where “they need us but don’t want us”.  

        And its a good argument, and true, and anyone who has had a baby in hospital, a parent in a care home or been tended themselves  with  Caribbean humour, gentleness and tolerance  will find their heart go out lovingly to the Mary portrayed by Kayla Meikle.  The supporting cast are a treat too, Llewella Gideon and, as the white women, Esther Smith, Olivia Williams and Susan Wooldridge. All three are expert shape-changers. 

     The content-advisory, by the way, mentions “Strong language,Partial nudity,Blood, guts and gore, Dementia, Defecation, Euthanasia,Strobe lighting, Vomiting, Gunshot and cannon fire, Warzone simulation, Childbirth and Alcohol use” But hey, that’s nursing for you! to 4 june

Rating.   Four, just!

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MIDDLE Dorfman, SE1


     Ah, middle age! Waists spreading outwards, options  contracting, marriage all too familiar, parents getting older fast and children taking their time about it. Media culture nags you, especially if you’re a woman, to be your best, cultivate peak “wellness” and treat your “mental health” like a Ming vase.  And just as the nation becomes fixated on the idea of menopause as a living nightmare ,and all women of a dignified age  doomed without chemicals , along comes clever David Eldridge with this two-hander.

     It opens at 430 am in a six-bedroom Essex house, with Maggie in her nightie informing poor Gary (who has only got up for a piss) that she doesn’t love him any more. Various clues are in the programme if you can face it: essays on male workaholism and stress, the isolation of new Mums, and marriages going stale.  On cue, , once Barry has got his bearings a bit Magggie explains further: she doesn’t really  get on with their 8 year old daughter, suffered agonies of loneliness in five years as a full time Mum since she was bored by all the other Mums . Going back to work hasn’t helped much because she once dreamed, after “uni”, of a job in telly or film, and her friend got to be a Carlton TV runner and she just went into HR but “I am so much more than that”.  Oh,, and by the way, she didnt enjoy that Valentine weekend they just had, or the two bouts of sex. News which upsets Gary almost as much as the dearth of her love. He thought it was a good weekend.

      Eldridge is an accomplished writer, and both actors are magnificent:  Claire Rushbrook with her broad handsome sorrowful face and Daniel Ryan stocky and steady, a slightly geezerish city-boy feeling his age and adoring his little princess of a daughter. She – it transpires – has always felt herself a cut above him, cuddly though he is, because she grew up in a house with Radio 4, whereas he had a crowded council house and Dad on the bins. Now it seems she has met a soulmate called John, albeit still chastely, with whom she can talk and talk: John listens to Classic FM and has “read all the books on the William Hill sports book of the year shortlist… He’s from Royal Tunbridge Wells!”.   The actual husbandly crockery smashing occurs (it’s only pottery, and he sweeps up afterwards) because she breaks the news that she made John a cup of tea in the house while Gary was out and John touched a golf club – “He had  – a swing with my sand iron???!!” 

      The hilarity that meets this  – and other lines denoting middle-Essex aspiration – sometimes made me seriously uncomfortable, in a way that occurs when an NT Dorfman two-hander audience giggles at people unlikely to go to an NT Dorfman two-hander (I am the lone critic who found London Road  unbearably patronizing).   

      And that feeling is a shame, because Polly Findlay’s direction is deft and swift, and purely as individuals both characters, as played here, are heartbreakingly real.  Her discontents are common ones, her failure to take a grip on them and separate fantasy from commonsense and inventiveness with her life is maddening but sympathetic.  Ryan’s Gary is absolutely magnificent in his depiction of man as seemingly a simpler organism than woman, one who can live for the moment on his small family pleasures and getting the crackling right on the pork dinner he cooks. But a final admission that he is in the doldrums too is a showstopping cry of sincerity. “I’m lonely. I’m bored. I feel shit about myself.  And it takes a lot of bollocks to admit that”. 

         So it’s interesting, and I would have liked to see these same characters, and same actors, in a play with more event and jeopardy. The sort of situation Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams – or indeed a good TV soap – might have put them in. It is a sketch, a watercolour on the landing of middle life:  sensitive, accomplished  but not likely to stop you in your tracks.     To 18 june

Rating three

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