Monthly Archives: July 2022

MACBETH Theatre in the forest, Sutton Hoo


    “This castle hath a pleasant seat..”   Indeed it does:  Red Rose Chain’s traditional outdoor show now lives alongside the mysterious mounds where the Anglo-Saxon warrior king lay with his jewelled sword.  It’s a marvellous site, a tiered arena (much recycled )  and even more recycled set: the castle is built of an old van and doors and floors from previous shows ;   the gas-bottle bell in the tower is supported by the gravedigger’s spade from their Hamlet.     As we settle, the clown-ragged cast are playing beach-cricket with a guitar and a smiley yellow ball which shortly will represent  the Thane of Cawdor’s head on a pike.  As silence falls and Jack Heydon’s Macbeth takes up his accordion they explain in chorus, with washboard and tin-can accompaniment ,   that this is “A tale told by idiots, signifying nothing… fools to dusty death..strutting and fretting this hour upon the stage’.   

       The larking, and that chant mischievously pre-echoing Macbeth’s Act 5 speech,  make clear Joanna Carrick’s directorial vision.  It’s out of doors, it’s  a summer show with witches in it,  it’s old old story re-enacted  with almost mumming-play irreverence in ragamuffin costumes.   But Carrick respects the text,  and a remarkable professional discipline marks everything.  The cast tearing manically around the set and auditorium are all  professionals but pretty young,  alarmingly fit and vigorous and exuberantly expressive (a lot of  miming moments behind every development in the turbulent murderous court, and some ferocious fights).

         But whether alone or in choral speech they are spot-on: not a mic between them, every word audible and clear in the big auditorium, scenes well signposted as befits a family show.    Even when veering off the text to address the audience in asides it has control.    The witches  –  remarkable 20-foot puppets with terrifying heads of bird, turtle and ogre –  are deftly manoeuvred by three cast members each  as they grope at us with horrid limbs. And they  are for once given all Shakespeare’s lines.  Hubble bubble,  eye-of-newt, all that stuff which  the grand productions always swerve embarrassedly away from.    

           So when a sudden quietening takes us off the battlefield to the castle, Olu Adaeze as Lady Macbeth, reading the letter and resolving to kill,   has the responsibility of conveying  the first murderous chill, and  she does so with a dark queenly dignity, undisturbed by any larking around.   The midnight marital discussion  around the  bloody daggers is chilling too. And much later on  Matt Penson’s sober Macduff is similarly given the silence necessary for his appalled “What…all my pretty ones?   Did you say all?”. 

       We need that.     Alongside the hideous brilliance of the witches (even more so in their second-half in the dusk , conjuring spirits)  the show cheekily, without nervousness, keeps  that balance and blends a rampaging circus narrative with the tragic poetry.  Banquo,  Ailis Duff in half a naval uniform,  stands downstage in front of the castle’s  uproar to deliver the first  suspicion of his friend Macbeth  “I fear,thou play’dst most foully for’t”.  It is serious, even though it is followed by a ridiculous  murder-chase round the stage,  a freshly created song rhyming “I’m toast! I’m Banquo’s ghost!’, a twerk or two,   and  and a head popping up from a barbecue.    It works.    Later, doubling  as an exasperated wife of the absent, soldierly Macduff  she is is perfect: natural and domestic, so that her  (decently offstage) death is heart-catching.   Similarly Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene has a proper quietness:  Olu Adaeze in her nightgown shimmers helpless with guilt  in the gloom, under the great sighing trees.  

        Oh, and the porter.    Looking back at Red Rose Chain’s  rock ’n roll Romeo and Juliet I notice that I gave Darren Latham “my rarely given award for a not-annoying Mercutio”,  and this time he has the even harder task of making the damn porter bearable (OK, I know some people like it, but to me it always seems one of Shakespeare’s grimmer lollipop moments, and many directors cut it to almost nothing).   This time Latham goes the full red-nose comic,  complete with audience taunting and a song with the chorus “They don’t care!”  But  it’s all echoing the Porter’s original lines.  And the audience love it. 

        Love it too when, at the press night curtain-call,  Joanna Carrick summoned onstage for a final chorus  the community-group “Chainers”, some with disabilities,  and the new production manager Ryan .  Who got that challenging set together,  and who first worked with Carrick when he was inside HMP Warren Hill,  writing his own play about redemption which I wrote about in the Times a couple of years ago.   Theatre talks the talk about inclusivity and disadvantage, but few so cheerfully, walk the walk as Red Rose Chain, of Ipswich.    

box office  to 20 August.   Selling fast.


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101 DALMATIANS       Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park NW1

101 DALMATIANS       Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park NW1


      Wooof!    The OAT’s new show,  bounding and cavorting along  under the direction of that amiable alfesco showman  Timothy Sheader,  rolls over  (with quite a lot of success)  to make you give it a tummy-rub and fondle its ears.  Toby Olié,  master-puppeteer,  puts the dogs, Perdita and Pongo each under the care of  two handlers (the rearward one  bending in spotty trousers, well up for a bum-sniff) and their heads, tails, legs and wags are eerily, skilfully, thoughtfully made expressive. The 99 puppies are represented by adorable little heads, again in agile human hands, popping up everywhere.  And the dramatic escape scenes) four  are represented  in voice by real children of the OAT”s Young Company.  

     Multiple other dogs are represented with economical brio by the quick-changing ensemble and often roam the auditorium,  to the ecstasy of children and the occasional parent who took the trouble to dress in dalmatian-print.  There are Scotties in kilts, Afghans in flowing locks, a tap dancing pink poodle.   Towering over them all is the noble sad old Captain,  Tom Peters singing the two best songs in the show, all the sorrows of life encapsulated in the scent of lost loved ones and the memory of a buried bone. Which, in a real sense, we are all searching for in life, no?

         Dogs we see are trustworthy, stand together,   pass messages of danger and support through the “worldwide woof” and the Twilight Barking.   Humans on the other hand are shamingly fallible. The struggling but loving owners,  Dominic and DAnielle, have not much of a clue beyond warmheartedness.     Cruella  de Vil has, until they rebel,  two hopeless nephews under her thumb (George Bukhari and Jonny Weldon, very funny)  and she herself is, of course absolutely evil.  Apart from wanting to kill puppies for a coat at a social ball which showcases  “who’s in and who’s thin”,  she is an Instagram influencer . Excellent choice for a villainess, allowing lots of choruses of “Share, share ! Like! LIke! Comment!” and the waving of phones in the background.  Kate Fleetwood, slinky and glamorous,  is a perfect Cruella: powerfully melodious, enthusiastically nasty,   handling rock ballads  with glee and jeering with fabulous menace  at “welfare whingers”  and outsiders – “British dogs for British People! Take Back Control!”.  No trouble spotting the liberal values in this show, kids! 

        The show accelerates, after a shakier start,  until by the end you definitely throw it a well-deserved marrowbone:  there’s  a “no-pup-left-behind” drama in the snowstorm escape, a helpful cat who forgives past chases to help out and exhorts the pups: “Young – make your voices heard, claim your territory!”  (another message).  There’s a wonderful  exploding car for Cruella (Liam Steel’s choreography and movement direction is as fine as Olie’s puppetmastery).  And (third big liberal message) at the end the broke young couple  realize we all must  “open your hearts, open your doors” and accept hundreds of puppies taking refuge.   But  just as any far-right border curmudgeons might be rolling their eyes at the Paddingtonesque urging to virtue and wondering what Truss ’n Sunak will say,   our cunning director brings on a REAL DALMATIAN PUPPY. And a great British awwwwhhhhhh! rises over the darkening trees.               

        A brand-new musical is the toughest of risks, because however good the tunes and lyrics they’re unfamiliar: unless every word in every chorus is preternaturally clear,  which is a big ask outdoors,  some of the fun gets lost in the attempt at concentration. That  is why juke-box shows are so popular: we all have a running start and are inwardly humming along .  The show’s creator Douglas Hodge (better known as a fine actor) is also a good musician, folksinger and composer, but the only running-start he has here is that we know about Dodie Smith’s 101 Dalmatians and the Disney film version (here the book is Johnny McKnight’s, the adaptation Zinnie Harris’). 

           But our Doug can turn a lovely tune (especially in the more folk-y mode) and he has some grand lyrics. Captain’s songs are best of all,  but  there are also some lovely doggy choral reflections like the necessity to “turn round three times before you sit down”,  and some inventive staccato panting.   Fleetwood’s Cruella numbers are sometimes  fine too, especially when “triggered” by failure and isolation  she laments that her only friend is enmity.    But kapow!  in a coup de theatre, she had to go.  Children and puppies can head home to sleep safe.  to 28th August 

rating four

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CRAZY FOR YOU Chichester Festival Theatre


       Foiled by heatwave and trains,  I made it six days later to the summer’s highlight, the glorious absurdity of this wickedly successful mashup: songs by George and Ira Gershwin from various shows, reassembled years after their death by Ken Ludwig into a plot of brilliant cod-nostalgic absurdity,  and roaring into life under Susan Stroman’s choreographic wit.  It is the ultimate song-n-dance show. And, in this year of theatrical resurrection, the timeliest of celebrations of showbiz itself.

      Bobby Child, a nerdy ambitious tap-dancing wannabe,  pleads for work with Zangler the New York impresario but is packed off as a banker in the family business to Dead Rock, Nevada, population 37 after the gold rush expired.   Ordered to repossess a failed theatre surrounded by yawning, bored rednecks, he falls in love with Polly, the only woman in town,  and resolves to revive it.   Posing as Zangler in a disguise so improbably successful that it is positively Shakespearian,  he sets to work.  Everything goes wrong, then right again. Especially when (more comedy-of-errors stuff) the real Zangler arrives, equally lovelorn, and even performs a drunken doppelganger scene with Bobby.   

       Ridiculous, and perfect. Stemp, who threw us all into a pother of admiration here in Half a Sixpence,  is not only an extraordinary dancer but in this subtler story he satisfactorily changes and feels before our eyes, from the dreamer who can conjure up eight fluffily pink chorus girls from a tea-chest and can’t quite avoid standing on people’s feet,  to a lover who gives up hope and then repents it.  

    It’s constantly funny,   set-pieces and immense ensembles coming one after another, and the energy and quirkily characterful dances and bar-room brawls are its glory (as well as being, gentlemen, at times a hell of a leg show).  You can’t take your eyes of it for a second to make notes:  tap-athletic craziness, percussive precision , pratfalls, pastiche,  wild-west wisecracks, it all keeps on coming.  Jokey references, old and new: on  Mickey Rooney, on the looming birth of Vegas “who’d come to Nevada just to gamble?”   Even a deliberate Les Miserables pile of gold chairs surmounted by the red flag.   Ludwig even leaves in a darker lyric in for now: “What if Romania / wants to fight Albania ?/ I don’t fret, I’m not upset..”   It’s a recklessly necessary liberation: just dance.   

         Nor is it just all about Stemp and Carly Anderson’s strapping, tough and tender Polly.   There are top moments from Tom Edden as the real Zangler, Marc Akinfolarin slappin’ that bass and a fabulously filthy, serpentine, threateningly erotic  “Naughty baby” from Merryl Ansah. But too many to list:   a joyful ensemble , each redneck character neatly and perfectly expressed in movement. There’s remarkable  timing from Alan Williams leading an unseen orchestra which melds with the percussive precision onstage using feet, spades, pickaxes, jugs, saws, brooms, plates, hubcaps, corrugated iron…  

      It is immense,  perfected,  worked to a hair,  and so it’s worth mentioning that it has sponsors: Architectural Plants and R.L Austen jewellers. And that  (with Chichester’s famously good sightlines) tickets start at a tenner,  and go no higher than £ 60.   If you don’t put in a quick buck-and-wing step in the car park on the way out,  I despair of you. To 4 sept.      

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CHAMBER OPERAS ON TOUR caught at Thorington, Suffolk

     Twice lately, under tall oaks and pines on what is becoming known as Suffolk’s mini-Minack,  I have encountered touring opera companies doing wonderfully, relaxedly, professionally.  Since they ARE both touring, links below,  let me tell you that Wild Arts with its opera evenings are of a breathtakingly high, ROH-level musical standard – a gorgeous quintet of musicians  and a most cunning choices of excerpts,  some of them mischievously well acted on the plank stage below us. I’d follow Orlando Jopling’s lot anywhere.

      And the other one is Opera Anywhere, currently rollicking through a Gilbert and Sullivan touring festival.   As an amuse-bouche they opened with the 45-minute Trial by Jury complete with “locally sourced chorus” rehearsed only once but happily bang on cue,  which among other pleasures introduced me to James Gribble as a diminutive baritone judge with a gift for natural physical comedy.  Then they did Iolanthe, and the standout was Dale Harris as Strephon  and a rather fabulous, grainy, Thatcher-tough Fairy Queen from VAnessa Woodward.   

        Surf their websites., below.   Catch tiny operas on the road!  Take the kids. They’ll see what fun it can be, and that it doesn’t have to be a grand country-house-opera-event.

various perfs to september

and next year 

to 17 november 

to 17 november 

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   Who knew that Caroline Quentin could achieve (almost) the splits, while strumming a ukulele?  Or that that Richard Bean and Chris Oliver – who a decade ago created the NTs world-conquering One Man Two Guvnors – would for their next 18c update attempt a mashup of Sheridan’s classic frothy Restoration romcom The Rivals, and set it  in  a WW2 RAF base?  But there we are, in a romantically perfect Sussex-Downs set complete with wicker chair, teacups, Nissen hut and dismantled nose cone. The romantic entanglements are taking place during  the Battle of Britain, and larded with RAF slang and numerous outrageously rude malapropisms.  There are from the start knowing asides across the fourth wall , eventually an unexpected but  suitably frenetic ensemble lindy-hop jitterbug , mickey-takes of 1940s socialist feminism and inter-service rivalry. And, slightly shaking some audience members on the way out , a clear authorial decision that since the Few were real heroes, old men now – if they were lucky enough to live – there’s a dark side you might as well express too.   

          It’s a nifty idea: although romantic entanglements in frivolous 18c Bath society might seem a long way from a Sussex airbase both were full of young people in full flower, constrained by class and circumstance but longing for love and sex .  RAF women, remember,  held many jobs: in this case Natalie Simpson’s swashbuckling Lydia Languish is a uniformed Air Transport Auxiliary delivery pilot and her friend Julia an army driver.   Cleverly, the 18c original heroine’s delusions about  the romance of poverty, wanting a plebeian lover,  is transmuted into our Lydia’s inverted-snob yearning for a Yorkshire mechanic rather than the heir to Sir Anthony’s Devonshire acres.  

       There’s  room for Quentin’s  Mrs Malaprop too,  since a requisitioned manor house must have a chatelaine, and she remains  just as happily delusional and romantically yearning as any of them. Though I have to tell you that her verbal mis-speaks are almost universally filthy (“..full to the quim” the least of them.  Though my favourite is her  protest at her lexical confusions being laughed at: “”How dare you suggest that I employ a mutilated Mexican?”).    There’s a comically earnest Sikh airman in the part of SHeridan’s comic Irishman,  a Churchill joke just at the moment you think the jokes have stopped, and a wedding-night conversation of the kind that probably absolutely happened in the 1940s but wouldn’t have got onstage. And in a sudden weirdly dark conversation there’s one of the lovers frivolously asking his girl if she would still love him without arms, or legs, or a face, and you remember that this might very likely happen to him, any night, shot down in flames literally rather than romantically. 

   Early on I wondered if the balance could be maintained between the reality of a wartime setting where any morning would see names crossed off the active board and iron beds cleared,  but they get away with it.  Emily Burns’ high-spirited direction keeps gales of laughter meeting good lines, disguises (oh the moustache gag)  and misunderstandings,  and the director’s prudent recruitment of Toby Park of Spymonkey to keep the physical comedy precise and frantic pays off (it was, remember, Cal McCrystal’s merciless phys-com that elevated One Man Two Guvnors).    You knew you were in Park’s safe clown-trained hands early on,  when Peter Forbes’ classically magnificent army buffer Sir Anthony Absolute is blocking a doorway . A terrified Jordan Metcalfe in the apologetic-innocent part has to squeeze, slowly and apologetically, round his embonpoint to get out.  Immaculate.  Later,  an incompetent four-sided boxing match shows the same dark genius, and I hope the NT has plenty of Deep Heat backstage for later. 

         Bean and Chris are accomplished jokesmiths, never failing to add an irrelevant laugh in passing (“We don’t live in Scotland any more. Because of the food”) and giving the great Forbes absolute licence in his vast raging rants whether about youth – including the front row –  or frivolities (“I didn’t die at Ypres so you could talk about biscuits.. Mafeking? Tremendous fun, we ate a lot of horses” etc.   Using Kerry Howard’s lively maid to shrug at the audience about theatrical absurdities in restoration comedy is fun too:  on one of the farcical knock-at-the-door-who’s-that moments she snaps “That’s how these plays work” and another time resignedly explains  “I”m a dramatic device!”.  

       Well, I’ll tell you no more. They get away with it all,  light and dark but mainly light,   until in the end you think to yourself that actually,  people did joke blackly and carry on calmly in those circumstances.  We know it from contemporaneous plays like Flare Path, and books, and memoirs, and old men who don’t talk about it until their last years.   It almost felt like a kind of tribute to a tougher age, whose jokes and banter were probably every bit as good as ours.

Box office to 3  sept.  But I guess it will move on, and on….

And it is being captured on video to be broadcast on Thursday 6 October in cinemas across the world

Rating four.

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A year on, and after a partly recast tour, SS America drops anchor back in the Barbican and in style. Actually feels even better than before. Aboard are Cole Porter’s champagne rhymes, Kathleen Marshall’s grand direction and peerlessly witty comic choreography , moments of 1930s romantic elegance for those with a tender nature and PG Wodehouse’s high-absurd plot for the rest of us.   Last year it loomed   out of the grey Covid fog like a sunburst, and had us on our feet.Same again.

   And is fitting in recessional and anxious times to remember that this glorious nonsense – of gangsters and molls and dim  toffs and sassy females putting every curve out there – belongs in the inter war depression years. I feel it is a lesson to us all to sing the Bluebird song and keep on tapping. 

   Much of the joy of it, in this cast which has toured together, is in the way that everyone gets their big moment, and some get several. When I saw Sutton Foster from Broadway as Reno last year I was dazzled by the energy, sweetvoiced likeability and sheer stamina of the woman , a legend already. But Kerry Ellis from Suffolk (o the pride) , is her match, and we are lucky to haul her back from Broadway. Samuel Edwards is back as Billy, and Haydn Oakley as Lord Evelyn – the latter possibly because  no human actor could resist another go at the unforgettable gypsy tango with Reno.  Carly Mercedes Dyer takes on Erma (and many many sailors) once again, neatly stealing every show in her few sharp lines, for beyond her glamour is a pinsharp timing on the ripostes which got her her own cheers.

    We have a new Moonface in Denis Lawson, less hat-tipping than Lindsay’s but demonstrating in the brig scene that there is  nothing, nothing on earth, as funny as a man in full evening dress and spats addressing an invisible  bluebird.  And Simon Callow is Elisha Whitney!  Spot on every laugh, doddering for England when required but  nimble as a goat in the tap finale, a treat. And the swing, the chorus, the dance captain Gabrielle Cocca and team…never forget them. They are the sea on which our leaping dolphin stars surf , skilled and perfectionist and a living froth of  joy.

I’m always rude about the Barbican theatre but the sightlines are all good and the cheapest seats under thirty quid and if you’ve had a hard day working-from-City-tower it’ll do you good. to 3 sept

rating five mice this time.

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PATRIOTS Almeida, N1


    Here’s a fresh history play: confrontational , shocking, classic in its focus on vast flawed characters and pretty close to documented  – and very recent  – reality.  It has all the elements:  a kingmaker whose creation turns on him, acolytes and shifting alliances, self-serving arrogance , passionate romantic patriotism, politics and big money and tragedy and  defeat.  Fresh from the new RSC Richard III, near the end I almost expected Tom Hollander’s mesmerising Berezovsky to offer his kingdom for a horse.

      It’s wonderful, never a dull moment and jammed with ideas:  political, ethical and, because our hero was a mathematician,  philosophical:  even i a brief discussion with his Professor as to whether the limitation of infinity is its own limitlessness.  

       It’s by Peter Morgan: not in the mode of his rather soap-schlocky, dragged-out Netflix The Crown,  but the sharp old stage Morgan who gave us Frost/Nixon and The Audience.   Indeed it demonstrates immaculately how  – as in Shakespeare’s histories – a huge, complex piece of history can be reduced to diamond-sharp focus on  a group of key players with clashing motives and characters.  

         We are in the 1990s:   Mikhail Gorbachev had reached  towards more Western ways and an open economy,  the rigid old Soviet Union collapsed and free market chaos grew in Russia’s. Yeltsin decade of crazy inflation, gangsterism,  state enterprises carelessly sold off to businessmen amassing huge fortunes:  the oligarchs we are even now feebly sanctioning.   Swathes of national assets fell into the hands of a handful of individuals as a weak premier, like King John, dealt with robber-barons: as the kingpin Boris Berezovsky remarks,  the political deals they made for their own prosperity were their  Magna Carta.  

        As Berezovsky,   Hollander deploys his astonishing capacity to move between smooth amused witty ruthlessness and terrifying explosions of rage.   He paints it as Russia’s new age of choice and opportunity, an awakening of a land too long frozen in sleep:  the play is book-ended with him musing on the Russian soul, warmly romantic and  misunderstood, a thing of snowy vistas and old songs by warm firesides.  The “kid” Roman Abramovich  (Luke Thallon) who this alpha-male takes under his wing has his own venal ambitions;  meanwhile the  hesitant, rather weedy provincial deputy-mayor Putin asks for Berezovsky’s help up the political ladder, gets it, and manoeuvres himself into the supreme power he still holds today.  The  upright security-policeman Litvinenko, a very impressive Jamael Westman, at first resists the Berezovsky approaches then , outraged by being officially ordered to kill him,  joins him and publicly denounces corruption, and gets arrested.   As Putin’s grip tightens,  Berezovsky defies him “across 11 time zones”  on the TV channel he owns.  We know what happened next .  We know what Putin became capable of, all the way to Litvinenko’s murder,  the bitter and rathe dodgy UK court case between the exile and the confident Abramovich, and the murder or suicide – open verdict still –  of Berezovsky.  

           Drama imagines, truncates,  emphasises clashes, and here it is done with elan under Rupert Goold’s tight direction,  set cleanly by Miriam Buether on and around a vast red platform before a brick wall with one huge doorway, sometimes revealing a mirror as Will Keen’s frightening, pallid little Putin gradually grows in cold-hearted confidence. No flashy effects: the script does the work in a series of seductive or confrontational scenes so numerous I stopped noting them . Though the moment when Berezovsky tears into his television studio to demolish the shameful lies about the deaths and negligence of submarine Kursk is unforgettable, and so is the moment when Putin, once a humble petitioner in an ill-fitting suit, turns on Berezovsky in his new autocratic confidence. “It’s a foolish man who ignores the President” he observes coolly, to which the oligarch explodes “Not if he created that President! Plucked him out of a deputy-mayor are my creature!”.

      It’s tremendous , electric drama, but its strength is the way that all four main protagonists travel through emotional growth or into decadence before our eyes.  Hollander’s Berezovsky burns at last with more than his original pragmatic vision, suffering in UK asylum a yearning exile’s heimweh.   Putin’s patriotism is a chillier, harder thing , expressed in a haunting scene on a cold fogbound eastern shore where he had sent  Abramovich as regional governor.  Line after line, especially Will Keen’s,  resonate grimly with the events of this year in Ukraine. The simplicities of commentators who assume that oligarchs or the discontented populace will  soon overthrow the monster are implicitly challenged. There’s power in calls to the Russian soul.   You leave  into the hot night both thrilled with the drama and full of difficult thoughts. Which is how it should be. 

Box office to 20 Aug.     

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EVELYN Southwark Playhouse SE1


     There are women who, seeing a friend in an almost-good outfit, cannot help reaching out: adjusting a belt , removing  an ill-judged frill, suggesting a hat.  Some new plays make you feel like this, and it probably annoys writer and director as much as  those interfering fashionistas annoy wearers.  But I cant help it in this case: Tom Ratcliffe’s play, directed by Madelaine Moore , could be brilliant, and grow bigger. 

        For I approve the theme, really love the carnival- brutality of the way it’s framed with Punch-and-Judy figures , and adore the live, beautifully-judged score of accordion ,fiddle folksong and the rest, which is by Michael Crean perched up top as a one man band ,  half seen and sinister in an executioners’ mask.    Moreover, Ratcliffe’s conclusion is twistedly fine, just when sentimental watchers expect an easy romantic redemption and are rightly denied it . 

          The problem is with the underworked text itself:  there’s a strong central theme of  the public judgement of people in horrible cases (in this case, a woman who gave her child-killing partner a false alibi, and served time for it).  Forgiveness is difficult in  an age of sensational media reporting, and mob condemnation online just to clickbait-easy. Nicola Harrison’s Evelyn is a newcomer, under a false name,  in a seaside retirement village. She is lodging with the slightly eccentric, affectionate Jeanne ( Rula Lenska, no less) who is on the edge of coming dementia.   But the rumour mill – nicely evoked with echoing scraps and projections of whatsappery and next-doorism – is going to get her. Yvette Boakye as an amiable single mother nurse fears, crazily, for her own child;  her brother (Offue Okegbe, a strong interesting performance) becomes fond of her, at one point  – the best writing in it – offering a tantalizing possibility of individual acceptance.   

        It is framed strikingly at the start  – and occasionally throughout –  by three of the figures in garish Punch and Judy show masks telling the story (the croc is particularly sinister).   Our seaside after all is  most famed for these violent babybashing puppet shows.  So overall, great idea.

         But the longer first half often fails to grip: Lenska is not given enough chance to do what she does best and go over the top:   too mumsy.  Her best line is when she explains why she rents the room so carefully  – “Don’t want some twentysomething doing horse tranquillizers in my bathroom”.  But…it drags. Only in the second half  does the play at last fire up:  Harrison,  understandably pianissimo in the first part, shows real pain,  Okegbe is quietly, heroically humane.   And the score even better than before.  

box office  to 16 July

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BAREFOOT IN THE PARK Mill at Sonning, Berks


  Once again , off to this most enticing dinner-theatre embedded in a historic treasure,  its big real watermill whirling away in the bar and the  Thames swishing past outside in the sunshine.  I reviewed Jonathan O’Boyle’s  stunning production of Irving Berlin’s  TOP HAT here (  and am happy to report that the prouction is  coming back for Christmas – 16 Nov to 30 Dec.  Some Cooney and Coward meanwhile,  and the Culture Recovery Fund grant has been (wisely) spent on some air-handling for the age of post-Covid caution.   So it’s well up and running again,  a Berkshire treat. 

    This one – wistfully framed in Paul Simon songs –  is   a gentle two-hour squib about New York newlyweds.   Neil Simon’s play made a famous movie rom-com with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.  It is now, of course, quite wonderfully dated,  not to say nostalgic: it’s pure 1960’s, though  not in the louche Rolling-Stones way wistful moderns imagine the period .    Hannah Pauley is  prettily frisky   and naively romantic as Corrie, nicely catching that period when girls felt independent and free in jeans but  didn’t cohabit before marriage , or particularly feel they had to go on working once they’d done it,   as long as they put dinner on the table and faffed about with furniture (it’s all there in early Jilly Cooper novels, honest. And  I remember it from my schoolfriends’ much older sisters).   

        Jonny Labey is splendidly gruff as the young lawyer husband who is anxious to get on, beguiled but baffled by the irrationality of his very young bride, and who, in their explosive first quarrel,  tucks himself up on the sofa for the night clutching his briefcase for comfort.       Another enchantingly dated aspect of the play is Simon’s  introduction of a Funny Foreigner,   James Simmons as  Victor Velasco the upstairs lodger .  Who is possibly Hungarian, or Greek, or Polish,  lovably exotic anyway,  and who drags the couple out to an Albanian restaurant on Staten Island,  complete with Corrie’s conventional widowed mother.  Who, of course,  ends up next day in his dressing-gown.    

         As I say, I actively enjoyed the datedness, and Simon certainly some brisk jokes and great lines. Especially in the second half, as the hungover  party struggle with the after-effects of ouzo (“I can’t make a fist…my teeth feel soft”) .    The denouement of the older couple’s cautious move towards acquaintance is beautifully done, Fielding and Simmons both perfect in pitch (mind you, he has the harder task,  funny-foreigner acting just isn’t  easy to pull off these days).     Between the young,   as  Corrie’s dream of perfect romance fades, there is possibly the best hysterically irrational lovers’ tiff since Private Lives.    And it’s all in a lovely, atmospheric New York loft set by Michael Holt with a perfect skylight and snowfall outside.  

   As I say, it’s a squib, a frivolity, a period piece.  An escape.  Which frankly, on Boris-Meltdown Day was no bad thing. Thank you all.

box office   to 27 August

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The review below is from its Chichester opening a couple of weeks back. So just a note on seeing it again: something that could well become a habit, because it really is rich snd fine. It works a treat in the Bridge’s huge but intimate space, audience wrapped round three sides of the Vicarage kitchen. and none of the funny lines – sharp, unexpected, mood-changing to the edge of shocking – risk getting lost. My link with the Englisnness of Jerusalem endures, but I felt more aware of another tradition: the whisky-priests of Graham Greene, the holy sot Sebastian in Brideshead… neither exact parallels, but part of a consciousness. I also reiterate the excellence of the ensemble as well as the unmatchable Jennings, the pinpoint sharpness of its class cameos, and the small half-heeded moments of human comfort in tragic absurdity

SO. anyway, enjoy. Saints, sinners, atheists, it’s for you.


      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.  to 27 Aug

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RICHARD III Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon


          The winter of discontent made glorious summer is ushered in with a wild conga round the stage under helium balloons, one of which the newest RSC  Richard  squeaks and bursts with practised deftness during his opening speech.  That endearing levity of staging, though, is the last and only anachronistic gimmick in this magnificent production:   mostly we see a wide bare stage beneath a brick tower on which great important shadows are cast.   No onstage camera or projection this time until briefly at the very end;  no directorial vanities or nonsenses.  Sometimes a boy treble sings or a trumpet calls from overhead; in the final battle an extraordinary physical coup turns the ghosts of Richard’s victims into the horse that throws him to his doom  and carries the victor over him.  Mostly we see what Shakespeare offered us: human players crossing and recrossing the stage, speaking, striking out, spitting, flinching, defying.

          THIis is director Gregory Doran, retiring RSC leader, doing what he does better than any of his generation:  showing with love, care, scholarship and flair how fine Shakespeare’s play always was  , in both language and construction.  We all know now, as obedient historians, that the Richard lately disinterred from a Leicester car park is grievously slandered in it:  who cares when such a tale is told with such vigour? 

     Breathtaking, with a speed of event that many a dragging TV binge-series should envy, we have the wooing of Anne by her husband’s murderer over his very corpse, the terrifying curses of old Queen Margaret, Minnie Gale hurling around a yard-long sweep of silver hair;   poor Clarence’s nightmare and murder, moving but blackly comic. Suddenly there is the old King’s collapse,  treachery,  a grisly head of Hastings (the RSC is getting too good at this, the prop-store must be a shocker). We have  a populist acclamation involving – no spoilers –  rather magnificent joke when two monastic hoods are dropped.  And through it all runs the susurration of court politics:  unease, hope, ambition, uncertain loyalties and –  served with  genius in this production –  the anger, pain and defiance of the women who are mourning father, husband, sons, confronting the entangled monstrosities of past and present murders.  The scenes between Queens Elizabeth and Margaret and the Duchess of York, mother to Richard, are breathtaking, their direct defiances and curses shake the room;  Kirsty Bushell’s  Elizabeth, the last one to defy Richard’s intentions, is feline and marvellously subtle. 

        But every part shines in its moments,  whether in laughter or shock:  everything contributes,  whether a neat strawberry-related smirk from the Bishop of Ely or a sudden tremor from Jamie Wilkes’ Buckingham when tasked with a murder too far. There has been obvious interest in the casting of Arthur Hughes , just turned thirty, who has a congenital  right-arm “difference” and so becomes the first RSC Richard to be actually “cheated of feature by dissembling nature” with a visible difference.    But it is important to say that Hughes brings far more to the role than that slight appropriate disability.  His talent, application and voice are fully of RSC standard but also he has youth, and spring, and fearlessness, and above all an innate cheeky playfulness which entirely suits Shakespeare’s most arresting psychopath.  

         He is splendid in his disgraceful wooing of Anne over her husband’s very bier, gives the moments of rage an unsettling hysterical edge and the smooth joking pretences an even more unsettling charm.  He summons barks of shocked laughter with Richard’s astonishing excuses (he admits to being “unadvised at times” regarding the murders of two children, various other relatives and his wife: the timing is such that we gasp, as intended.     Tiresomely fashionable to draw modern parallels,  but there is a moment when  he is confronted repeatedly by Queen Elizabeth over his murder of her two little boys,  and in sudden boredom he snaps “harp not upon that string ma’am, that is past”.  I admit to hearing a chime of some partygate dismissals. 

       But that sort of reflection – and even the far bigger reflection of the hubris and murderousness of our own age’s Putin  –  is the least of it.  Take this as purest Shakespearian tragedy:  vigorous but classic,  a magnificent magnification of the darkest human and political longing, of affection, terror, defensiveness, hubris and – in the women – a defiant courage. It rings down all mankind’s troubled ages.  Don’t miss this one. to 8 october

Rating 5

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