Monthly Archives: June 2022

CANCELLING SOCRATES Jermyn St Theatre

ALL GREEK TO US, AND TOPICAL WITH IT

Fascinating to see how, despite many light tempting fatuities and sentimentalities onscreen and onstage, and the countercurrents of self conscious experiment and virtuous nagging at the heavier end, you can still pack theatres with conversations about ideas.  Provided, that is, they are  knottily entertaining and streaked with vivid eccentric characters . We have had Straight Line Crazy and now The Southbury Child at the Bridge, rich in both;  and the Jermyn – small as it is – has been rocking Howard Brenton’s latest, set in Ancient Greece and dealing with the last days and condemnation for sacrilege of the philosopher  Socrates.

    Our hero is  played with raggedly cheerful  donnish insouciance by Jonathan Hyde, bright-eyed from the start as he questions and teases his friend Euthypro,a nicely effete Robert Mountford, about the nature of holiness and the absurd legends of warring gods,  on which their fragile democracy is, for the moment, resting.  His legal accuser, delightfully to the grownup audience, is a pompous young man (“It’s great that the young take right-thinking so seriously” murmurs Socrates).  Much has been made of this parallel with todays censorious youth and closed minds. 

    But there is more than that topical twitch to it: Brenton creates a portrait of a particular kind of tiresome necessary questioning, a stubbornness which warms the heart in an age of group think on  half a dozen issues.  It is also a humane play, the role of Socrates’ wife Xanthippe and his mistress Aspasia forming its centre with a sharply argument between personal and  family values and the restless wider ambitions of the soul.  But the whole thing sings, under deft direction from Tom Littler.  It’s his last hurrah as Artistic Director of the Jermyn, and he deserves every plaudit and propulsion to bigger things:  he picked up all that was good in this marvellous little theatre and ran with it. 

     Which is why I am posting this, sold-out as it is, in the hopes that he takes it on elsewhere.  And keeps the marvellous central performance by Hyde and its counterpart by Mountford (who doubles as the jailer in the fascinating, eerie final scenes), not to mention both the women , Sophie Ward and Hannah Morrish  (the latter finally and eerily becoming his inner daemon-goddess near the deathbed, in a brief, brilliantly lit and imagined sequence.  It’s entirely a treat, a thoughtful treat, never dull for a moment,  leaving a dozen new thoughts.  Vive the Jermyn, vive Littler!   

Jermynstreettheatre.co.uk.  Running to Saturday, sold out, always worth trying..

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TONY!  The Tony Blair rock opera          Park Theatre N4

IT HAS COME TO FRUITION. REJOICE!

   In a spirit of joyful pastiche, it’s a Sweeney-Todd sound that opens the show:  “`Prepare! To be made Aware! Of the most successful Labour Premier! Now a Millionaire!”.   The deathbed scene, with faint attempts at confession, book-ends the show as Blair’s life develops and as musically it slides away from this brief  Sondheimery into – well, everything really. Touches of rap and tap,  golden-age ballad soundalikes, high-school cheerleader rom-com moments, Lehrer, Handel, and when Gordon Brown explains economic theory, a booming hymn with church-organ.  That Harry Hill is the writer explains the rumbustious irreverence of it,  but Steve Brown’s tunes and  lyrics are much of its glory. 

     This little theatre has form in irreverent, thoughtful biographical plays:  Thatcher and Howe in Dead Sheep, de Gaulle and Petain in The Patriotic Traitor,  the terrifying but necessary An Evening With Jimmy Savile.  And outside the very fringe it is hard to think of many theatres which would have plunged into Harry Hill’s absurdist but pinsharp demolition of the personality and pretensions of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair:  a figure still forever sidling into the limelight telling the world how to behave.  I wrote a note on it here in its workshop phase, script-in-hand,  and said:

“There’s real contempt for spin,  vanity, the Iraq invasion and even the grinning PM’s treatment of poor Gordon Brown with his basso-profundo and tartan underpants.   There are sparkles of rage amid the glorious Hill jokes and barbed, carefully finessed and divinely silly rhymes”.   

      All still true,  but this is sharpened even further:  the walk-on-water smugness, the innocent grin, Ugly Rumours, the conversion to Labour in a masterful Cherie’s arms,  the TB-GB rivalry neatly depicted in a boxing ring,  the oleaginous Mandelson, narrating and managing,  the gleeful Diana moment when (Mandy manipulating a balloon-dog with great skill) New Labour realizes it can “shape the grief, harness the grief and ride it back to No.10!”. 

     Jovial wickedness, and a conclusion veering from the sharp hard solemnity of the 100,000 deaths in our illegal war’s alliance to a challenge to the audience (“you voted me back! Yes, after Iraq!”) . Finally that triumphant chorus, with names and pictures of the world’s tyrants and pretenders from il-Jung to Putin to Hitler,  as we bellow with them  “The Whole Wide World is run by assholes!”. A tune so catchy that now I can’t stop singing it.

        Wonderful side jokes, because this after all is a Harry Hill reaction.  In  Blair’s early triumphalism amid the period’s big stars (Savile, Gary Glitter, Rolf Harris)  there’s an intervention from the side with a furious “Is anybody else uncomfortable with the wobble-board?”as it is snatched away. Or the magnificently tasteless Diana interludes (the goddess is performed with magnificent eye-and-fringe work by Madison Swan) where we get an up to date touch of Bashir.   The moment when Gordon Brown at last gets the hot seat and picks up the phone to the news of Lehman Brothers is magic.  The global politics, guyed with a viciousness few satirists do so well, include Dick Cheney in puffs of smoke explaining to Bush how the answer to all problems has always been Bombs Away!,  and  how poor Saddam Hussein moaning on the phone to Bin Laden about the stupidity of “rattling their cages”,  before skipping into a self-exculpating neo- G and S number.  Bin Laden meanwhile sings that there’s “only one thing I detest, the entire population of the west! So unrepressed!”. 

       I hope some bigger theatre gets the bottle to pick up Steve Brown’s production.  I also hope it picks up most of this cast, a shape-shifting ensemble with  brilliantly ramshackle fast-moving, physically sharp enthusiasm. Salute Charlie Baker’s Blair,   Howard Samuels’ entwining Mandelson, and Gary Trainor’s Brown, who keeps  appearing with trousers down explained by a plaintive “politics isn’t about image” .  

     Of course New Labour achieved useful things, as well as damaging politics and international honesty. Of course history moves on, and we’ve suffered the coalition austerities and Boris since (get to work, Hill and Brown!).  But for anyone over forty at least, this entertaining evening offers above all a real sense of gotta-laugh relief.  All together now “The whole wide world is run by assholes..”

Box office   parktheatre.co.uk   to 9 July    Sellout. Some tix released daily. Good luck.

Rating five

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PARADISE LOST caught at Thorington, touring

OF MAN’S FIRST DISOBEDIENCE….

 Thorington is a new outdoor theatre, a beautiful bomb-crater amid tall sighing pine trees and beneath a great oak in Suffolk.  It runs only one-night,  occasionally two-night shows through the summer so won’t be reviewed often here, but this show by “A Certain Demographic” (founded to give older actors space to work) has got half a dozen more tour dates,  so is worth noticing.   

    It’s a curiosity, one of those delightful sproutings now going around after the loss of two Edinburgh Fringes and a lot of lockdown frustration.    Ian Sharp’s words and Tim Sutton’s music are applied with merriment – but some decent reverence too – to the great rolling iambics of John Milton.  Indeed it is the closest modern thing you’ll see to the old Mummers’ Plays: less repsectful than the Mystery Plays,  more a matter of mixing in broad vernacular, jokes and characters from everyday life. 

        In medieval times that was rural life,  but here it is bang up to date here, when Bonny Ambrose’s striding Lucifer becomes a sleazy striped-jacket lifestyle salesman offering  “everything from mojitos to medium-range missiles”,  and tempts Claire Cheetham’s Eve with an electric hedge-trimmer while Chris Walshaw’s deliberately  tedious Adam,  cast as a sweet septuagenarian with flowing locks  forever naming animals and pruning,  is getting a bit of a bore. 

          There are some early problems in the mix:  after an introduction from an affable Gabriel (Ian Sharp, who outdoors rather needs a mic)  the ensemble , under excellent Eden trees made of umbrellas,  open the show with a song whose words we can’t quite catch and an uninspiring dance. So the heart sinks a bit.  It rises though,  the moment Lucifer strides on, rebelling against God – “Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues, Powers!!!… and Milton takes over as he falls from heaven to the pit of Hell.    

       Thereafter the balance is perfect, Milton’s words used when most needed,  balancing the nonsense.   Cheetham is a sweet -toned Eve, with a lovely song and real innocence as she gazes on her reflection and  meets her new Adam,  and becomes serious fun when the bite of apple turns her  raunchy.   There is a fine cabaret number from Candy Fern’s Sin, offering us everything original and dirty  (some audience flinched happily at her advances) and a second half double-act with her son, Death:  who Harry Petrie depicts with considerable energy as a slavering, hungry malevolent ragged halfwit . 

          Jesus,  arriving with final rebukes and promises and Milton’s own words,  is Euan Lynch, another fine singer .  In short, from 1667 to 2022,  the old story echoes as it should. 

TOUR DATES I can discover so far :

July 3rd – Baysgarth Park, Barton upon Humber – Shakespeare Festival – afternoon performance

July 9th – Broadbent Theatre, Halton Hall, Wragby – 2 performances, Matinee and evening.

July 10th – Epworth Rectory, Isle of Axholme – afternoon performance

July 16th Harpswell Gardens nr Lincoln – afternoon performance, possibly evening

July 17th – Scunthorpe Town Centre (Library & Art Gallery, under discussion TBC

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THE SOUTHBURY CHILD           Chichester Festival Theatre then Bridge

VIA MEDIA ANGLICANA IN A NEW JERUSALEM

      We’re in  a vicarage kitchen in a small West Country town,  its incumbent dealing with parishioners, a resentful, weary wife and two daughters: Susanna is a dutiful verger and schoolmistress,   adopted African-heritage Naomi a cynical unbeliever who has come home from a struggling acting career and likes to scandalize the town in her  “Lithuanian prostitute” outfits.    It isn’t easy being an Anglican parish  vicar in an age of dwindling respect and attendance  (a sharp essay in the programme is well worth reading).  On one side he faces angry  sentimentality and scorn from council-estate unbelievers,  whose resentment drives the plot; on the other a smugger middle-class yacht-club agnosticism.  The latter is beautifully encapsulated in the doctor’s wife, Hermione Gulliford in gilet and jeans,  shuddering at “that morbid business with the cross at Easter”  and saying that her friends got married in a crop circle  because these days people “aren’t afraid to define their key moments” without clerical assistance.

           It is a fine play, sharply written with some real  strong unexpected laughs and a heartstopping ending.  Its subtleties of character ask a great deal (not in vain) from the cast.   Nicholas Hytner, who takes it onward to his own Bridge in a few days,  once programmed Stephen Beresford’s subtle, mournfully Chekhovian debut  THE LAST OF THE HAUSSMANS at the National: he curates  this new one himself with thoughtful care.   It deserves it:  as a reflection on England (not Britain) Beresford’s  dry  observation and undercurrent of poetic yearning place the play fascinatingly alongside JERUSALEM, albeit with piquant differences of tone.  To me it feels like an equally important one: those who deny that will likely do so because of its gloriously unfashionable setting and hero. 

        That hero is David Highland,  evoked beautifully in every line and gesture by Alex Jennings:  a moth-eaten, visibly flawed Anglican vicar fighting not only the retreating tide of faith but his own drink habit, the shame of an aborted affair (“rules for vicars: don’t fuck the flock”),  and the rebukes of a pompous offstage Archdeacon (“Angry? We are never angry in the Church of England. We are “grieved’”.  Ouch).  His dry humour and humane warmth recognize absurdities but he holds to integrity in matters of ritual,  and the way that centuries of tradition have grown it to assuage and accept the deep terrible realities of death.  His best moment of the year is the “Blessing of the River” when the fishermen who live and work close to those realities do, just once every year,  respect the processional prayer he leads.  

        Liberal audiences may boggle when, as the first act develops, we learn which  particular hill David seems prepared to die on – or lose his living and his home on –  as the diocese sends a brisk young gay curate to sort him out.    The Southbury Child of the title has died from leukaemia, leaving a skinny waif of a single mother, Tina, and her brother the  rough-cut, troubled, vulnerably manipulative uncle Lee.  The family want the church full of balloons and Disneyiana – “a celebration of  her life”.  David refuses:   death is real and funerals are there to serve grief, not neutralize it.   “Death isn’t about Disney”. 

     “So so happy ending?” says Lee.

      “No EASY ending” says the clergyman.

         The row over balloons magnifies, all classes uniting against him: a babble of voices offstage between scenes and the arrival of the (beautifully drawn) pregnant local cop Joy suggest a potentially ugly denouement.  That doesn’t entirely happen, though with the assistance of the Book of Common Prayer  Alex Jennings’ final lines did make me actually cry,  all the way to the car park in the dusk.

           There are fine performances, sketched with lightning skill in short scenes: Racheal Ofori as red-hot Naomi and Jo Herbert as her dutiful sister  each test their difficult identities on Jack Greenlees’  wary curate, and the final appearance of the bereaved mother Tina is explosively moving.  Josh Finan’s Lee in particular is wonderful:  seething with hopeless underclass rage but with a real connection to the vicar in whose untidy kitchen he is seen either yielding to distress, shame or malice or simply dropping unforgettable philosophical theologies like “Why is there anything?”  and “If Henry the 8th had kept his cock in his tights, we’d all be Catholics anyway”. 

      This was Chichester.    I very much want to see this play again, at the Bridge, and feel around me an audience probably more urban, more smugly agnostic.  Will report.

cft.org.uk  to 25 June then in London bridgetheatre.co.uk  1 july-27 Aug

rating five

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